Hard work and success and the difference between the two

Ah, June, when the thoughts of Carleton faculty turn to…frantic grading frenzies.  It’s the end of the term, I’m neck-deep in grading, and of course my thoughts are all about…grading.  And grades.  And student responses to them.

Tonight I’m pondering student responses to grades that are lower than hoped for or expected.  Specifically, once in a while I’ll have a student meet with me to discuss a grade, and in the course of the conversation the student will say “But I worked so hard on this, so why did I do so poorly?”  Or “I studied for days for the test, so why didn’t I get an A?”

Hard work is no doubt important to success; some might argue a necessary condition.  But it’s not a sufficient condition.  And students don’t always get this.

I just got a grant proposal rejected (with no reviewer feedback! none!).  I worked very hard, and many long hours, on it.  Of course I wanted it to be funded, but realistically I knew that the reviewers could care less how much time I spent on it—if it’s not what the funding agency deems important, or good science, it’s not going to be funded, no matter how brilliant it is (ha).

I’ve been going many rounds with a journal on a paper I submitted back in 2008 (!!).  I’ve worked extraordinarily hard on that paper (repeatedly).  But it’s not quite what the reviewers want, so it keeps coming back as “revise and resubmit”.  (It would help, of course, if the reviewers did not change every. single. review. cycle., but that’s another story for another day.)  So I keep working hard on it and hoping I get it right the next time around.

And I won’t even go into how many hours I’ve put into certain class plans that never saw the light of day….or did see the light of day and bombed spectacularly.

Failure, and failing, is a part of life.  To effectively function as an adult, you need to be able to deal with failure, and to be willing to put in hard work on things that may never come to fruition (or may fail spectacularly, or just a little).  If I got derailed every time my hard work didn’t pay off, I’d be paralyzed as a professional. So I worry when I hear students say these things.

The thing is, I’m not sure how to best get this point across.  Because it IS a bummer when you put in 15-20 hours on a project, do beautiful work, and completely miss the point of the project.  Or study until you know the course material like the back of your hand, but answer the wrong question on the exam.  But as sucky as it is, that’s life, and learning how to deal with these and bigger disappointments in the more sheltered world of college is much, much better than learning to deal with the crueler disappointments and bigger failures beyond the college bubble.

So next time a student says “But I worked so hard!”, maybe I’ll pull out one of my own stories of failure after hard work. Maybe the student will roll his/her eyes (internally or externally).  Maybe s/he’ll nod, and then go back to pleading the case at hand.  But maybe, for some students, this will be an effective way of saying “keep working hard—it won’t always pay off as you hope, but it will always pay off in the long run.”

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