Life as a young alumni – Defining success

A letter I wrote for Elon’s student newspaper, The Pendulum. It’s targeted at young alumni who are wondering how to define success now that they are no longer receiving As & Bs in the classroom.

I was asked by Elon University’s student newspaper, The Pendulum, to write a few articles about life as a young alumni. This letter is about defining success, especially when you’re not getting As & Bs anymore.

Dear Alum,

Right now, I get a grade for everything I do. Either I do well enough to pass, and I get to shake Leo’s hand at graduation, or I don’t, and my parents strangle me for wasting $100k on an education I apparently never received. If jobs don’t give out grades, how do I know if I’ve passed or failed?

Straight A Student

Dear Straight A Student,

I wouldn’t go repeating this to your parents (or your professors), but grades are overrated. Many of you would do better without them.

With grades, everyone is on the same playing field. They give us a standard way to define success and failure. However, there are two problems with this:

  1. Everyone is not on the same playing field. Life just doesn’t work that way.
  2. There is no standard definition for success and failure. They are defined by you, the individual, not the dictionary.

This is a new way of thinking for most of you. You’ve lived your entire life up to this point being graded on a common scale – the same scale that everyone around you was using.

Now, the grades are gone, the scale has been lifted, and you are free. Free to study whatever topic is of interest to you. Free to work as hard as you’d like, toward whatever goal you are trying to achieve. And free to be your own judge of success and failure.

But let me warn you. While it’s a liberating experience, it’s not easy. There’s a reason why grades have existed for as long as they have. So how do you know if you’re working too hard, or not hard enough? How can you tell if you’ve succeeded in making a difference? Or perhaps failed miserably?

I can’t answer those questions for you. But here’s a fundamental difference between grade school and the rest of your life:

You get an F in grade school, it’s always looked down upon. You encounter a failure in life, and it might just be the single best thing that ever happened to you.

The Alum ’06

I don’t know how you do it

I saw someone say to a friend, “I don’t know how you do it,” to the fact that she ran 20+ miles. I think you do know. It’s the same stuff you’ve been doing all along.

Here’s a basic recipe for success no matter what you’re doing with your life – running or otherwise.

Nonsense. Sure you do.

I just saw someone say to a friend on Facebook, “I don’t know how you do it,” to the fact that she had run 20+ miles. Truth is, she probably does know. She is just choosing to be awed by it instead.

Don’t get me wrong. 20+ miles for anyone, even an ultrarunner, is no walk in the park. It’s a solid run, and it deserves respect. But it’s not super-human, and the fact is, you could do it too… if you want to.

So how do we run 20+ miles?

Consistency. Hard work. Persistence. Passion. Training.

It’s all the same stuff that made you good at raising your kids. Playing the piano. Even tying your own shoes (well, maybe except for the passion).

We choose running. You may choose something else. But the things that get us there are very much the same.

You consistently work hard at something. You persevere through the hard times, keep training (repetition & practice). And you absolutely love doing it.

That’s a recipe for success no matter what you choose in life.