Shades of Gray

“Your Foundations grade will be available online on Wed., 10/2 at 1:30pm.” I feigned disinterest when I read this announcement. Foundations was designed to be passed. But ingrained habits swam to the surface.

First, I worried. Did they fail me for accidentally triggering the Econ exam and exiting in a panic the first time through? Then, I puffed up a little. Did I receive special mention for my poignant LVDM essay about learning to avoid criminal prosecution? I had to know where I stood. Come on, you peeked as soon as you could, too, didn’t you?

Of course, the payoff was a big, fat “S for “Satisfactory.” I knew this was the likely scenario, but it felt anticlimactic. The last time I was graded on an S-based scale was in kindergarten, and then at least I had an “S+” or two to encourage me.

This episode echoed my reaction to the distribution of exemplary Capitalism essays. I pretended not to care when I found it in my box. Later I covertly flipped through the winners in a deluded attempt to spot my own work. For half a second, I actually thought the third one was mine. It was so great! It wasn’t mine, though. Bummer. Did anyone else know it was an essay contest?

Then today our section mentor told us we’d be receiving some individual feedback on classroom participation. He cautioned us not to be too disappointed to find ourselves in the middle of the pack. No surprise to anyone, right? The system is set up in such a way that most of us will fall into the large, middling “2” bucket. “I will be average, and it will be okay,” I thought. Then for a fleeting instant I fantasized about how it would feel to get straight “1’s” this semester.

Why do I harbor this reflexive ache for distinction? I thought about it – what did good grades mean to me in the past? Well, good grades made me feel proud, as if I had accomplished something. Good grades pleased my parents. Good grades earned me rewards like cookies and hugs in elementary school, or scholarships and jobs later in life.

But good grades are not such a big deal at HBS. They don’t provide a granular scale against which to judge performance, my parents are just thrilled that I’m here, and jobs at our level aren’t earned by grade points. Now I have to find pride in something else, and I only have myself to please. Which means I have to know what I want out of these classes on a subjective, personal dimension.

When I tell people outside HBS about the grading policy, they think it makes the program easier. No, it’s definitely harder. It’s much harder to both set and exceed your own expectations.