Sara Brenes-Akerman | Untie self-worth from performance

A Likely Story | It is a mistake to equate accomplishments with personal value

· November 3, 2011, 12:24 am   ·  Updated November 3, 2011, 11:50 pm

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Sara Brenes-Akerman
A Likely Story

You are only as good as your GPA and only as valuable as the first job you land after college. This might seem harsh — I would be the first to agree that it, in fact, is. But it is also the only logical conclusion to draw from the way in which we seem to evaluate ourselves. It is hard to ignore the mounting pressure that becomes apparent around this time in the semester. Everyone is looking tired and anxiety is commonplace. Yet the magnitude of the pressure is not solely determined by how busy we are, how many papers are yet to be written or the amount of projects that need to be completed. It is almost as importantly about the value that we assign to the results of these many assignments and the misguided way in which we let them determine our definition of personal success.

The key misconception at the center of this problem is the underlying assumption that only the things that can be measured are worth measuring. GPA and starting salary are two perfectly measurable things but it makes little sense to assume that their measurability should be equated with their significance. And yet, this is the thinking that seems to prevail.

According to Nic Marks, the statistician responsible for developing the “Happy Planet Index,” countries do it too. Marks argues that one of the barriers that prevents happiness to be more widespread is precisely the deeply ingrained notion that overall progress is to be measured exclusively through a financial and economic definition of progress. “That somehow, if we get the right numbers to go up, we’re going to be better off,” Marks said in a speech in 2010. This, he states, is simply incorrect. Interestingly enough, he quotes the Wharton-educated economist Simon Kuznet — who once said that “a nation’s welfare can scarcely be inferred from their national income” — to make his point.

If GDP can’t measure the welfare of a nation, why should we buy into the notion that GPA can measure our own personal welfare? That getting an A somehow makes us better people than those who score a B? Or that a getting good job with a good salary says something critical about who we are?

These questions are particularly relevant for people coming of age in times of economic uncertainty. Having been raised in a world where the possibilities seemed endless, we are now faced with possibilities that might be considerably more limited.

The good news here is that there is reason to believe that we wouldn’t be happier with a higher GPA or a better job or more trophies. At least not according to Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, who specializes in the study of what makes us happy. He argues that we overvalue the impact that future events, like doing well on that midterm or getting to the last round of interviews, can have on our well-being. His studies show that we are actually capable of synthesizing happiness and that this “synthetic happiness” is “every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you attain when you stumble upon what you were aiming for,” Gilbert said in a 2004 speech. Which leads him to the rather incredible conclusion that “not getting what we want can make us just as happy as getting it.”

If getting an A will ultimately lead us to the same level of happiness as getting a C, shouldn’t this make us reconsider our obsession with grades? If the same result will be reached, what’s the big deal?

Joan Didion, the iconic author and National Book Award recipient, didn’t make Phi Beta Kappa in college — a fact that would later lead her to write “On Self-Respect,” an essay on which she recounts how damaging this initially was to her self-confidence. “To such doubtful amulets had my self-respect been pinned, and I faced myself that day with the nonplussed apprehension of someone who has come across a vampire and has no crucifix at hand,” she remembered.

Not getting a perfect job or flunking an assignment can very well make us feel worthless. But being confronted by a feeling of worthlessness might just be the first step toward untying our self-worth from all of the tangible things that ultimately have no effect over our long-term happiness. It might be the first step toward finding a better crucifix.

Sara Brenes-Akerman is a College senior from Costa Rica. Her email address is A Likely Story appears every other Thursday.

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