Here are three ways to evaluate a person’s performance.
- How good are they at their worst?
- How good are they on average?
- How good are they at their best?
Schools use the first two criteria, but the market uses the third.
Schools evaluate people at their worst
Teachers average grades to come up with semester grades, and semester grades feed into a grade point average. So in some sense schools evaluate average performance.
But in more subtle ways schools evaluate students by how good they are at their worst. To graduate, your lowest course grade in all your required courses must be passing. Brilliant achievement in one area cannot compensate for a failing grade in another area, so in that sense grades aren’t really averaged. Your creative writing grades are excellent, Mr. Shakespeare, but we cannot let you graduate until you pass physics.
How do you get on the honor roll? Your lowest grade has to be above a certain level. Again, what matters is how good you are at your worst.
How do you get to be valedictorian? Be good enough at every class to get an A. You have to be pretty good at everything, but you don’t have to be truly exceptional at anything.
Schools encourage perfectionism, not excellence. They encourage people to avoid mistakes, not to be creative.
Markets evaluate people at their best
Markets often evaluate people and products at their best.
If you write 100 obscure novels and one best-seller, you’re a best-selling author. If you consistently write moderately popular novels, you’re not. If you write one really good novel, you might get a Nobel prize. Imagine the Nobel committee evaluating a writer saying “Yeah, these two novels were brilliant, world-changing. But he also wrote this one novel that was mediocre. Let’s give the prize to someone whose books are consistently pretty good.”
The Ford F150 did poorly in focus groups. The average rating wasn’t good. But the people who liked it really liked it. And the F150 went on to be the most popular truck in history. All that matters in business is people who like your product enough to buy it. You don’t make any money by being everyone’s second choice.
If a company has one product that is a runaway success, the company is a success. If it has two or three runaway successes, even better. But a company can produce a few dismal failures (think Microsoft Bob or the Apple Newton) and still do quite well if their flagship products succeed.The same is true of the people behind these products. Someone can make a successful career with one big win even if they have a number of failures.
We all want others to see the best in us. There are ethical and economic reasons to look for the best in others. But years of education can incline us to look for the worst in others and in ourselves.