It’s been fourteen years since I took my SPM (final high school) exams.
And while I didn’t get full distinctions (A1s) for every subject, I came close.
9 A1s (10, if you consider the UK-graded 1119 English essay) but missed out on Moral Studies. “Just” an A2 for that — which is OK, considering how they say only immoral people get A1 for Moral Studies.
A few months ago I read a viral article titled “Why I Regret Getting Straight A1 in SPM“. It was written in 2011, by a student who actually got 16 A1s. I respect him for his achievement and his honest story. He raised a lot of valid points that made me think.
But as I look back on my own journey, I’ve never for one moment regretted getting my As. Here are thoughts from my personal experience.
You Don’t Need to Kill Yourself to Get As
I’ve known a lot of straight-A students in my life. I’ve also known a lot of average students.
I’ve hired First-class Honors graduates before, and I’ve hired average graduates too. In the real world, attitude is a way more important than being book-smart.
But here’s what I’ve always observed: The majority of A students are just like everyone else. They aren’t absolute geniuses. They’re people who are born into good families (privilege and upbringing are huge factors in academic success), but also work hard at their studies. They have friends, lovers, hobbies, and problems like everyone else. In school, they were just as rebellious and naughty as your typical C student.
The image that you have to be a fat, bespectacled, socially-awkward nerd to be a straight-A student is total hogwash.
If anything, I’ve personally observed that students who lead balanced lives do better in exams.
In our pursuit for excellent results, did my friends and I study hard? Yes.
Did we kill ourselves doing it? Not even close.
School was really fun for us.
Getting As Has Some Cool Privileges — Like Meeting Really Smart People
Getting As opens up the way for scholarships and prestigious universities. Then again, you already knew that. And you’re probably irritated by all the old people who preach it.
But perhaps the least-mentioned benefit about getting As is — you get to hang out with some really smart people.
Some of these people will be extremely calculative, selfish, no-lifers. I’m not talking about them.
I’m talking about wonderfully smart, multi-talented, yet humble, and sociable young people. I’ve had the pleasure to go to university with many of them.
My ex-roommate was a brilliant straight-A1 student, who was also a killer at squash. But the most impressive thing about him was his discipline and dedication. He was so disciplined that he could consistently study while the rest of the room was filled up with me and five other guys talking crap (and playing guitar) all night. If you’re reading this — I’m sorry Fabian!
One of my coursemates used to design computer games in his free time. Today he runs his own computer games development company.
But perhaps the most brilliant guy I met in Uni was a top-3 scorer in SPM during my year (13 A1s).
He used to sleep in lectures because he was so bored. And then finish his tests really early with superb marks.
I once asked him how he managed to study for 13 subjects. I’ve forgotten his full answer, but I’ll never forget his nonchalant remarks about preparing for the Commerce (Perdagangan) SPM Paper:
“Oh, about two weeks before the exam, I first picked up the textbook and started studying.”
But Rich Dad Says A Students Work for C Students Right?
Yes, there are many wonderful examples of C students becoming big bosses.
And I admit, some traits that make an A student — like memorization, risk-aversion, and conformance — don’t jive well with entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship requires risk-taking, innovation and boldness. It’s also kind to rule-breakers.
But what bugs me is when people talk as if learning and education aren’t important for success.
Take a look at some of the world’s foremost self-made billionaires. They’re also amazingly learned people.
People often point out that Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) never finished college, but became astoundingly rich and successful.
While that’s true — they didn’t finish college because they chose to, not because they were stupid. And they both went to Harvard. No one who gets admitted to Harvard is dumb. They just dropped out because they had better things to do.
By the way, Bill Gates scored 1590 / 1600 on his SATs (the exam for college admissions in the USA). Mark Zuckerberg is reported to have the same score.
In other words, they would have kicked our asses in high school.
The Education System is Tremendously Flawed, But YOU Can Thrive Despite It
I’m not saying that As are necessary for success though. Or that if you’re less academically-inclined, you’re bound for failure.
What I’m saying is — education is really important.
Yet, we all know that the education system is flawed. The over-reliance on traditional measures of intelligence, As, and written exams is stupid.
But the great thing about education is that you don’t just learn in school. You learn from books. You learn from the Internet. You learn by asking your mentors and peers for advice. You learn from tough experiences from the greatest teacher of all — life.
The system may suck, but education can thrive despite the system. You can thrive despite the system.
I know how much life the zombie teachers suck out of education. How dry and boring they make things. How the system stifles your creativity through rote-learning. I’ve been there too. But again — you can have a good education. Because it depends almost entirely on you. Even if you’re not smart, you can improve. You just need to see education through different eyes.
* * * * * * * *
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a lazy person. So lazy that I always search for the minimum effort required to get a good result. It helps me optimize my life.
I was blessed enough to discover mind maps at an early age. They’ve helped me understand concepts quickly till today. Then, Tony Buzan taught me that “cramming” isn’t efficient — but regular revision with plenty of breaks boosts memory. I also realized that sharing knowledge with others helps me more than them. And that having an active social life and playing sports actually makes you smarter.
Guess what — none of this was learned from teachers in school. But they’ve all helped me ace school.
So whether you’re a nerdy A-student who gets ostracized by the cooler kids. Or a borderline-passer struggling to understand why you need to study. Or a deeply-concerned parent, unsure of which school to send your kids to…
Understand that education isn’t about the As, the exams, and the system. It’s not even about future job security, how much money you’ll make, or if you’ll own a company someday. All that is secondary.
It’s just about falling in love with learning.
And that’s something no one ever regrets.
The original version of this article first appeared at Emmagem.
Picture by Sara Cimino at Flickr