On a cool autumn morning in 1993, I walked into the old brick school building where I would be joining the eighth grade class. I was both excited and apprehensive. 

It was, after all, my first day of formalized education—ever. I was 13 years old.

Until then, I was homeschooled. My educational curriculum comprised only three formal subjects: math, science, and some mixture of grammar and vocabulary. The rest came primarily from reading—biographies, novels, National Geographic books—or experiences like the zoo or museums. 

We had few distractions. My parents had ditched the family’s one television when I was 4 years old. That’s why I once read the entire “M” encyclopedia in a single day. I was 9 or 10 at the time. 

Given this atypical childhood, it’s probably not surprising that I find various aspects of formal education slightly odd. 

Grades are Strange

One aspect about formal education that I find odd is grades. For nearly my entire primary education, everything had been fine for me without them. My parents simply sat down with me and made sure I could do the problems in the math textbook or understood what I was reading. There was no need for testing or grades in this tiny “classroom” because any topic that I didn’t grasp quickly became apparent. 

My situation was unique, of course. When teaching a larger group, educators need to have some way of knowing if the students are learning. And it must be more efficient and standardized than what one could do with just one or two students. Hence the tests and grades that have become institutionalized in our schools and universities. As a university professor who has taught thousands of students since 2011, I realize this.

There comes a time, however, when students must realize that it’s not about the test or the grade anymore. And for all of us beyond the classroom, those of us in the messy arena of work and adult life, success certainly involves much more than a test or grade.

In my professor role, it’s perhaps relevant to note that I typically only interact with graduate students (most frequently seeking a business-related master’s degree). With these students, I often begin the course with a discussion of two ways in which they can orient themselves and their efforts.

Namely, they can have a performance orientation or a mastery orientation. In fact, all of us can have one of these orientations toward outcomes in life.

Performance Orientation

A performance orientation in the classroom focuses on the grades. It involves performing well by some external standard. This is exactly what we’ve been taught either explicitly or implicitly to seek in most educational settings. You have to get good grades to have good opportunities. 

Want to go to a good college? Better “do well” in high school. And “do well” means getting good grades. Unfortunately, that’s simply part of the way things currently are.

But “doing well” or “succeeding” in graduate school and life in general is about so much more than achieving some grade or external recognition. And especially beyond the limited years one spends in school, most of life is best approached through an orientation toward mastery. 

Mastery Orientation

A mastery orientation is about intrinsic accomplishment. It’s about growing as a person, in skill and understanding. It’s fundamentally about learning, about actually becoming a better version of yourself.

The mastery orientation is the one that I advocate for my students to take. It’s not that I don’t want them to work hard and get good grades. It’s that I want them to care about learning, about mastering some new concepts or skills—first. 

The trouble with having a performance orientation, particularly in graduate school, is twofold. 

  1. Focusing too much on grades can mean that one isn’t focusing on the real goal—learning. If you really care about learning and mastery first, the performance and grades will often take care of themselves. 

  2. Grades, while ideally linked to learning, will always be an imperfect reflection of it. Worrying too much about whether you got a single question right or wrong on a test simply isn’t worth one’s time and effort—especially the student’s time and effort. Again, focus on learning and mastery. 

The other reason I advocate a mastery orientation among my students is that it’s a useful approach toward life itself. It’s certainly helpful when trying to be a good employee. Research suggests that having a mastery orientation correlates with high-quality relationships with supervisors, leading to higher levels of performance, innovation, and job satisfaction. Additional research found that having a learning orientation is associated with higher levels of creativity and related attitudes. 

So again, it’s not that grades or other external measures of performance don’t matter at all. It’s simply that actual learning and our own drive toward mastery matter much, much more.  

What if we all read the “M” encyclopedia (or whatever another version of that might be) even if no one would ever notice?

What if we pursued new challenges solely for the sake of learning, for the sake of becoming a person who’s a little bit more informed, a little bit more capable and ready to add value to the world than we were yesterday?

Imagine if we increasingly chose a mastery orientation over a performance orientation, and imagine if we encouraged such an approach for each other and for students of all ages.

That type of orientation toward learning and life, the evidence suggests, would serve us much better than only seeking external validation of success.

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