Iron enough to make a nail,
Lime enough to paint a wall,
Water enough to drown a dog,
Sulphur enough to stop the fleas,
Potash enough to wash a shirt,
Gold enough to buy a bean,
Silver enough to coat a pin,
Lead enough to ballast a bird,
Phosphor enough to light the town,
Poison enough to kill a cow
This is a verse I first read in Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett (very much worth a read), called “These are the Things that Make a Man.” It refers to the spirit of Winter, who searches for these things because he’s fallen in love with the protagonist, Tiffany Aching. He wants to be a human so he can court a human. However, all this creates is a body, not a human. The Wintersmith has just the trappings of humanity, not the substance.
I feel like society has its own version of this list, a list of things that make a successful person, like:
Money enough to live in style,
Sex enough to brag about,
Face enough to take a picture,
Body enough to be a model,
Friends enough to never be alone,
Power enough to be invincible,
Personality enough to be unique,
Confidence enough to be an ass.
Something like that. Pretty much all the marketing, all the messaging, all the social conditioning that surrounds us tells us to want this ideal, and exists to help us achieve it. Nearly all industries are out to help us become a successful person, provided we conform to their idea of successful. It’s overwhelming, and nauseating if you think about it, which is why we try not to. But just like the Wintersmith, this list is only the trappings of success. Success is a complex concept that is twisted with happiness, honed by maturity, and unique to each individual, but it’s hard to pursue uniqueness. So society simplifies success, and people pursue the wrong thing, out of fear of failure.
I see this a lot in university, where people use their grades to approximate their future success. You have a 90+ average? You’re golden. An 80 will still probably get you places. 70s you start the worry and 60s, you really start to panic. Failing means you’ve failed as a human being, because you’re never going to be successful in life with a fail on your university transcript. Or at least that’s how the story goes.
For those of you who’ve been reading my blog before, you might remember that I failed before. Even if you haven’t, you can still see how ridiculous the story is from an emotional distance, but to the kids who face failure for the first time in their lives, it’s their reality. I see it a lot, especially in academically rigorous programs that have really incredible alumni and a reputation for being tough. That panic, that fear, is part what’s going through their head when they’re facing down the first 60 or 50 or 40 or 30 or 20 or whatever.
It’s not just the students, either. We, as a society, have put too much emphasis on marks to simplify the narrative, to make it glamorous, to make it a story. After all, no one wants to read the thousand rags to rags stories when there’s one rags to riches story. It’s lead to this delusion that good jobs are equal to marks, marks are proportional to effort, so if a student works hard enough, they should get a good job. As a result, students feel entitled to be rewarded for process and not results. Anyone who’s worked a real job knows that results, not process matters, which I think, is the only real lesson to be had from taking grades so seriously. But using them to measure a person? It’s like telling someone that all 6″2′ blond guys with blue eyes are equally attractive (which they’re not).
Don’t get me wrong, aside from teaching and storing a lot of information, universities still will sculpt good corporate citizens. It’s not as hand holdy as high school, which is scary, but in the end, university still provides plenty of support for fledgling adults that doesn’t exist in the real world. The classes give structure to learning that doesn’t exist in the workplace. The tests check if you know how to use a concept or an idea before you risk millions of dollars or lives on an application, and the grades tell you what concepts you don’t quite understand yet, when your boss would just fire you for a mistake.
And yet for a lot of people, being a good corporate citizen won’t be success. But what really is success? We’ve try to boil it down to a number, a GPA, a salary, whatever, but that number is not what you learn in university, in any school, in life, nor is it really success, just a sad proxy. And while I can’t define success for you, I can tell you what really makes a human, according to Pratchett.
Strength enough to build a home,
Time enough to hold a child,
Love enough to break a heart.