Measure the Right Things (#3 of 6 – Lessons That Impact Life)

This is third in a series of six posts about lessons I learned from my grandfather that apply to career growth and development, in addition to just being generally good advice for life. This is in his memory and in honor of Father’s Day.

Report card time for any student is stressful. I was inquisitive and curious and worked to learn and apply my skills, even in kindergarten and especially in Advanced Placement (AP) classes. This meant in most cases I was headed for the honor roll, but stuck in a perfectionist mindset anything other than all A’s was disheartening and felt like failure.

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Yes, I acknowledge now as a “recovering perfectionist” that being in a perfectionist mindset was ridiculous. I’m more forgiving of myself and realize that mistakes are opportunities, not just a penalty.

In my last post, I shared a lesson from my grandfather to figure out what really matters in life. Do the grades in my classes really matter? They influenced where I could apply to and attend college and grad school, but otherwise, these grades were a measure of a moment in time of how I could use the information. It didn’t take into account how it was applied outside the contexts of a classroom, how it could be meaningful, or if I would even retain it past the point of measurement.

But if something on a report card did matter to my grandfather, it was conduct and effort. Pops valued how we presented ourselves not just at home but in public. He found it important that we try our best no matter what we did. Pops didn’t mind a lower subject grade coming home if you truly did everything in your power to learn. The learning process, interest, and focus mattered. If you brought home an A in conduct and an A in effort, a reward of $20 was yours to collect.

This attitude was helpful to me when I got to college at WPI and was surrounded by incredibly brilliant people who also worked hard. There were certainly some curve busters in the classes I took (and I definitely did NOT fill that role!). The hard earned B (differential equations) or rare C (intro to electrical engineering…for majors) were sometimes accomplishments with greater pride than the A’s that came more easily.  

I realized in those moments of pride that I understood what Pops wanted us to learn by his reward system. Maybe it wasn’t exactly more about the journey than the destination, but how you go about the process, how you are as a person, and how you respect other people. No one wants to be around a person who is centered on how funny they are (especially when they aren’t!) instead of the task at hand. Anyone who has ever worked on a team or group project knows the pain of that one partner who doesn’t ever pull their weight.

He was, without telling us, building our character. Pops was encouraging, by rewarding conduct and effort, traits that would help us in the long run. That report card with “A” plastered all over it in fifth grade is great, but even better is the ability to contribute to a meaningful cause.

Right now I am reading the book Grit by Angela Duckworth. The timing as I write this post couldn’t be any more serendipitous. While I still have room for improvement on the grittiness scale, I know the expectations on conduct and effort helped develop a work ethic and ability to grind when the going gets tough. Following through with commitments, either personally or to others, matters. It is sadly a point of differentiation in a world of instant gratification.

Over the past few years at my current company, I’ve said “yes” to assignments that were new experiences, including one with ambiguous pathways for how to achieve success. On this project, the important thing was to first establish what the expectations were with my leaders. Once that was understood, I had to rally my team toward goals that meant something to each team member. We made these declarations together in the same room, and each group’s contribution to the list of goals was posted, shared, and agreed to by everyone.

Each team member committed to all of the goals, not just the ones they contributed. This built a mutual respect and understanding for what each member of the team needed to be successful. Doing a list of joint goals allowed trust and respect to be earned by everyone. If something didn’t go perfectly, we were more willing to go with the flow and work towards resolution than live with frustration. Mutual trust and respect being already established helped. This is the conduct and effort from the report card in action in a real work situation. When we measured goals that mattered to everyone, the whole team gelled and committed. The result was a level of success that went beyond any expectation.

My grandfather was a savvy guy. He knew the motivations that would result in helping his grandchildren become the best people they could be in school or in society, on top of what my parents were already doing. Pops recognized that if you measured (and rewarded) the right things, you could get the desired results. The lesson was clear to us that acing a test was only part of the equation, we had to be model citizens and represent the family well. And to do that, conduct and effort were measured and rewarded.

Have you noticed when you alter what or how you measure, that outcomes change? Did you learned any lessons from measuring the wrong thing? How do you know you are measuring the right things in your own life?

The remaining three posts will be published in coming days. Please check back soon!

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