There’s a popular quote that’s floated around the internet for years. It’s often attributed to the famed 20th century physicist Albert Einstein:
“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
There’s not much evidence that Einstein ever said that…but does it matter? Does it make the basic logic behind the statement any less true? Unfortunately, the way we evaluate peoples’ skills and abilities makes about as much sense as judging a fish by its climbing ability.
Do you believe your grades define your intelligence?
A fixation on tracking our growth and capabilities using a standardized grading scale gets implanted in us at an early age. By the time we reach adulthood, many people simply accept this as the only method to gauge what we can accomplish. That’s a huge problem – because grades and intelligence are two very different things.
Here are six reasons why grades and your intelligence are NOT the same.
Reasons your grades do not define your intelligence
1. Grades don’t necessarily reflect your abilities.
You might know the lessons covered in class, but still be unable to translate that into performance once it’s up for a grade. Your mental and emotional state are powerful factors. For example, a lot of people suffer from test anxiety. That can make it difficult to succeed – no matter how well you understand the material.
The idea that your present state can override your intellect makes sense because, biologically speaking, your emotions have the tendency to take over in certain situations.
If you’re stressed or anxious, your brain will want to do a thousand things other than complete a complex assignment. So don’t be surprised if a person underperforms on a task; maybe it’s because they’re too stressed to focus.
2. Grades are less important than comprehension.
If you study to memorize material for a test…well…congrats, you’ve learned to take that test. It doesn’t mean you’ve learned the material, though.
A lot of what you will find on a typical written test is based on rote memorization. Facts and stats simply spilled onto a page without much context or need for deeper problem solving. This approach cannot accurately measure abilities. In fact, you might as well just play a game of Simon.
That’s why grades aren’t quite effective at measuring comprehension. You need to be engaged and challenged to solve problems in new ways. This is something that doesn’t often translate to the standard grading rubric.
3. You can’t always quantify your strengths.
As humans, we’re a lot more than just numbers on a page. Each of us has an incredible variety of different strengths and talents. The abilities typically measured by grades only cover a set range of them. Intelligence is just one of countless variables that will impact your grades.
Grades are a flat, static scale, that aren’t as useful if you’re trying to judge something as dynamic as a person’s intellect. No single scale could give you a good look at a person’s unique mix of abilities, talents, work ethic, creativity, leadership skills, and how those traits influence one another.
Relying on abstract metrics to define your strengths could lead you to miss out on great opportunities. For example, I happened to accidentally discover that I had an aptitude for technology when I was in high school. I took a basic class in computer programming, and that ended up sparking my interest. I’ve since built a successful career based on my IT background.
That might never have happened if I’d stuck to what I believed were my aptitudes.
4. There are different kinds of intelligence.
Imagine you have three people: a physicist, an expert historian, and a master artist.
Each one is brilliant in their own. But if you measure them according to the skillsets of the other two, they might all look unremarkable when you grade their papers. It’s just like that quote we talked about earlier.
In the same way they can’t adapt effectively to account for the balance of strengths and weaknesses in each person, grades also fail to recognize unique, adapted intelligences in larger populations. Even if your grades don’t reflect well on your abilities, it could be that they’re simply not looking at the right ones.
5. Your passion matters more.
Intelligence refers to one’s ability to learn, understand, and apply knowledge and skills. But it doesn’t count for much if you don’t have the drive to do any of those things.
If you’re studying something you don’t care about, you’re not likely to invest much energy in trying to comprehend it. Thus, a person with passion that pushes them forward is more likely to come out ahead of someone who might be a genius, but who isn’t motivated.
That’s not to say you won’t be dedicating time and energy to some things you don’t really care about. But once you identify what you’re passionate about, you can learn to follow paths that will play to your strengths rather than your weaknesses.
6. Intelligence can still change.
You’ve probably heard that your intelligence won’t ever change, that your thought capacity will remain largely the same throughout your life. However, many experts believe there is a good chance it can change over time.
There is an idea known as the Incremental Theory of Intelligence that suggests intelligence can actually be developed and improved through training. Those who accept this theory are more likely to embrace challenges, be persistent, and learn from past mistakes compared to those who believe that intelligence is static and unchanging.
Personally, I favor this view. By engaging in exercises to train your mind over time, you can boost your intelligence and shape your own reality.
No one system could ever define your overall intelligence. This realization goes two ways: just as grades don’t dictate your intelligence, your intelligence also does not dictate your grades.
If you’re not satisfied with your performance, then there are plenty of ways to improve. Grades are the result of a lot of factors; and hard work and commitment are far more important than any surface-level evaluation. The only real limitation is how much time and effort you’re willing to invest.