What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.” — Wittgenstein
This quote from Wittgenstein sounds reminiscent of the one your Grandmother used to say, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
Like your Grandmother, he was a smart cookie — though, I’m not sure if he was as good at baking cookies.
In this post I’m going to explain to you my life-long theory that good grades make you stupid by first using two examples of histories worst students (Wittgenstein among them), and then tell you a little story about an experience of mine in graduate school.
None of this is proof, mind you. Rather, it’s an illustration of the point, meant to break those who are suffering most from the tyranny of their most cherished delusions.
Why would I be so cruel? Why not let people suffer?
Because I’m a coach.
If there is something that is holding you back, that I can help you fix, I’ll do my best to explain to you a way out. What you do with the information is up to you.
Your over-caring about grades in school held you back then. It’s analogue to your workouts today is holding you back now.
Let’s fix that.
Wittgenstein: The Great Annihilator
Along with Frege and Russell before him, Wittgenstein played the part of destroyer-of-philosophy: demolishing centuries-old beliefs; not shaking, but shattering the foundations; setting the houses (so carefully built upon them) aflame.
Philosophy has quite literally never been the same since. But all of that is well-known, and rather passe, isn’t it?
What you may not know is that he was a rather shitty student — in the classical sense.
Unlike the droves of students of philosophy who came before him, and who came after, diligently studying and taking exams, Wittgenstein didn’t bother.
He had better things to do. He understood the point: grades are just a game. He was interested in real knowledge.
When you conflate grades with smarts, you’ve already lost the game of real education.
He didn’t sit for his exams or do his homework, or read the books he was supposed to read. Instead, he spent his time doing philosophy and educating himself as he went along.
The result? He became better educated than any of his peers, and out-shined them all.
Ben Franklin: Bootstrapper
Ben Franklin stopped going to formal school around the age of 8. He had better things to do like build a nation.
Without doubt, Franklin was one of the best-educated men of his, or any, century. Yet, by today’s standards, he’d have only gotten through his 3rd grade year.
He wisely undestood that learning and skill building are far too important to treat so trivially as we do with our grades-obsession.
What Grades Are: A Game
Grades are a game teachers create to force kids to play along. Up to a point, that makes sense. I’m not arbitrarily anti-grades, any more than I’m arbitrarily anti-game… I spent 3 years of my life studying mathematical game theory, for God’s sake!
However, when you create a game, you inevitably cause the players to become overly emotional in the process of playing the game… rather than succeeding at the underlying tasks the game was designed to address in the first place.
Games as learning aids are useful, but only when they remain games.
Grades are the worst example of when this fails.
Kids become so obsessed with getting A’s, that their real education takes a (huge) backseat to the effort expended to get the A. What we create are myopic, inside-the-box thinkers.
Ben Franklin and Wittgenstein were anything but that.
Mathematics & Morons
I had this professor in graduate school — We’ll call him Professor E. — who was widely regarded as one of the hardest, and most brutal, teachers in the mathematics department.
I loved his classes, and took nearly all of them. Most students avoided him like the plague. After all, if you took Prof. E’s classes, lord knows what kind of grade you’d get. Better to wait to take the same course from someone else who was a much easier teacher.
Now, let me be VERY clear.
- Professor E wasn’t hard because he was a bad teacher. those people certainly exist
- He also wasn’t hard because he artificially made his grading policy (the game) impossible to beat. many, many, many professors do this — especially in the humanities
No, he was hard because he taught more material and had higher expectations of what you should be capable of doing with it.
In short: He treated you like an adult.
That’s the right kind of hard. I still emulate him on this count today with my athletes in the gym.
- Raise the bar high, higher than anyone else.
- Then clearly teach your students how to reach it.
- It’s up to them if they are going to put in the work.
- Worry not about what they can’t do, but what is possible if they try.
Professor E also hated grades. He constantly complained that the department forced him to give them. So he made it very easy to at least pass his courses. You weren’t — at all — guaranteed an A. But, you could pass so long as you had some idea what you were doing.
The trouble, the part that really pissed off other students, was that he required you actually be able to do something. (gasp!!)
This fucked with the game-playing aspect of Grade-hunting that most A-students are used to. Normally, there’s some loophole, or some set of “extra credit” you can do to make up for the fact that you don’t have a freakin’ clue what you’re doing.
Not in his classes. No extra credit. No loopholes. Nothing that can save you.
If you were even marginally capable of doing the (admittedly hard) material in his courses, he’d pass you. Usually with a B or more.
But, if you couldn’t show that… you didn’t pass.
Real Life Is Binary: Grades Are Not
My professor’s criterion for passing was binary: yes or no; pass or fail; 1 or 0.
That sounds like sports doesn’t it? Either you make the lift, or you fail. There is no middle ground.
You can’t get a B- in sports. You either won, or you didn’t. You either did what needed to be done, or you didn’t.
That’s true for many other situations:
- Did you get the job? yes or no
- Will you marry me? yes or no
- Are you dead? yes or no
Everything in life that actually matters is binary. The rest is a kids game.
Chasing good grades is a fools errand. Chasing a real education gives you skills and abilities no one can take away from you — ever. You win.
Application: Snatch That Shit Up
Don’t believe the hype.
You’ve spent a minimum of 12 years of your life being indoctrinated by the monolithic school-system — maybe longer — that has tricked you into believing that grades and your education have something to do with one another.
They don’t. At all. Not even a little.
It’s correlation, and a bad one at that.
The trouble is that because of the Stockholm Syndrome you are now suffering from, you’re applying this false-lesson to every other area of your life.
I see it all the time in gym environments — especially in gyms that do “classes”. Classes are great, but be aware of the game-like situations you’re falling prey to.
- Your gains in the gym have nothing to do with following any “rules”
- Your gains have nothing to do with getting “points”
- Your gains have nothing to do with finishing your WOD in some predefined period of time
We can gamify your workouts in any way we want, but that doesn’t mean shit in the end.
Your gains are like your real education.
- They can’t be seen on paper.
- They can’t be taken away from you.
- They have nothing to do with anyone else but you.
Built skills. Don’t chase points.
Now go lift something heavy,