March 27

How The Search for Right Answers Destroyed Higher Education

From an early age, we’re all conditioned to search for the right answers. After being a straight-A student in high school, I was accepted to UC-Berkeley, the number one public school in America, in 1996.

But I graduated with a 2.97 GPA and was subsequently fired from almost every job I’ve had in my professional life. On the other hand, my sister graduated with honors, earned a masters, became the chief anesthesiology resident at Yale, and completed a fellowship at UCLA.

I’ve accomplished what I have despite my education, not because of it.

Because of the stark contrast between my sister’s outcomes and mine, I’ve spent the last decade exploring why our education system is broken and how we can fix it.

  • I’ve asked college professors at elite schools how they would redesign our current education system.
  • On the Unmistakable Creative Podcast, I’ve spoken to thought leaders from various industries about how we create an education system to prepare young people for the future of work.

To be clear, I’m a strong advocate of education. But the search for the right answers has caused both students and educators to lose sight of what education is and what it’s not.

Education is not about tests scores, elite colleges, GPA, or how many letters someone has behind their name. But above all, education is not about the search for correct answers.

Take the Test, Learn the Lesson

right answers

In school, we learn a lesson and take a test. But as Will Smith said in his biography, life gives you tests first, lessons second . And we learn these lessons by being wrong.

  • We learn to choose the right partners by dating the wrong ones, to get back up by falling, and to save money by wasting it.
  • Nearly every scientific breakthrough, modern innovation, and successful company are predicated on the possibility that someone will be wrong.

But, the education system punishes people for being wrong. The search for the right answers has destroyed education, kills creativity and demolishes the dreams of many young people.

Indians and Education

The expectation of high achievement is a given in most Indian families. Because he’s a college professor, my dad instilled the value of education in my sister and me. Both of us were straight-A students in high school.

When I came home from school and told him about the kid whose parents gave him five dollars for every A, my dad said, “you get a roof over your head and a meal on the table.”

To my father’s credit, he implicitly taught me and my sister and me the value of intrinsic motivation, which has been instrumental to everything I’ve achieved as a writer, creator, and podcast host.

But the expectation of high achievement also came at the cost of my willingness to be wrong.

I cared too much about my grades and not enough about learning,

In countries like India, competition for admission to elite institutions pushes students to their breaking point. Students are conditioned to believe that their test scores determine their destiny because they do.

But the need to be right in the short run diminishes their willingness to be wrong in the long run, paradoxically leading to less learning, innovation, and discovery.

False Indicators of Future Success

gray and white click pen on white printer paper

“IF IQ tests, SAT Tests, are unreliable predictors of career success, they are even worse predictors of genius,” says author Craig Wright in his book, The Hidden Habits of Genius. Yet we condition young people to believe that their grades determine their fate.

The Meaning We Assign to Grades

“The evidence is clear: Academic excellence is not a strong predictor of career excellence. Across industries, research shows that the correlation between grades and job performance is modest in the first year after college and trivial within a handful of years. For example, at Google, once employees are two or three years out of college, their grades have no bearing on their performance. (Of course, it must be said that if you got D’s, you probably didn’t end up at Google.).” said Adam Grant in his New York Times Article, What Straight A Students Get Wrong.

Grades are not the problem. We need a way to measure learning and enable teachers to give students feedback objectively. The problem is how we have been socialized to think about grades and use them as a universal indicator of intelligence.

People believe that their grades reflect their potential, not their performance.

  • Getting an F is synonymous with being a failure for poor students.
  • On the flip side, straight-A students don’t develop a thick skin to receive harsh, critical feedback. But in life, you have to be open to what you need to hear, even when it’s not what you want to hear.

Elite education institutions become breeding grounds for conformity designed to churn out future bankers, lawyers, doctors, and engineers instead of creative thinkers, innovators, and people who disrupt the status quo.

The search for the right answers has led to a college admissions scandal, teen suicide, and students who stop believing in themselves. Our education system has produced a generation of young people who are sacrificing the love of learning at the altar of achievement , which paradoxically makes them less likely to achieve their goals.

Coloring Insides

In our recent podcast episode about learning from failure, my friend Gareth said, “I was good at coloring inside the lines. So I thought I had it made and was destined for greatness.”

But life handed his ass to him. Being good at coloring inside the lines didn’t prepare him to be a single father in his early 20s or try again after starting four businesses that failed.

Coloring inside the lines works in systems that reward compliance, conformity, and obedience.

But it doesn’t for life in the real world, which is a system designed to reward curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking.

The Gift Of Failure

brown wooden letter letter letter blocks

Failure is a gift misidentified as a tragedy. The education system conditions people to sacrifice the gift of failure for the tyranny of being right. Progress, innovation, learning, and discovery are born out of the willingness to be wrong and fail.

No matter how innovative or creative someone is, failure is always possible. In many cases, it’s a necessity. But when our failures define rather than inform us, we give up on our dreams.

Risk, Failure, and Wrong Answers

Every choice we make in adult life is a risk .

  • Ordering a meal at a restaurant is a risk because the meal might suck.
  • Asking someone on a date, going on a date, or starting a relationship is a risk
  • Applying for a job, starting a company, or making art is a risk.

Progress, growth, and discovery all require risk. You can’t have the former without the latter. If you diminish a person’s capacity for risk, you limit their growth in every area of their life.

If Thomas Edison had quit the first time he was wrong about the light bulb, we’d still be in the dark. If there’s anything, we should learn, being.

Success in the Real World Requires More than Book Smarts

opened book on person's lap with gray socks

Being a straight-A student in high school is not an indicator of intelligence. It’s an indicator of discipline and the ability to do what the teacher says. But as Adam Grant says, “career success is rarely about finding the right solution to a problem — it’s more about finding the right problem to solve.”

The very things that enabled someone to be an honor student in high school can limit their potential in life. Valedictorians don’t become CEO’CEOss because they are exceptional at doing what at finding the right solution to a problem instead of finding the right problem to solve.

They memorize formulas, regurgitate them on tests, and earn good grades without realizing that Rote memorization creates an illusion of knowledge .

How The Search For Right Answers Kills Creativity

“One of the problems is that schools and our educational system, and even our way of raising children replaces curiosity with compliance. And once you replace curiosity with compliance, you get an obedient factory worker, but you no longer get a creative thinker. And you need creativity; you need the ability to feed your brain to learn whatever you want,” says Naval Ravikant.

Right answers lead to good grades and open the door to elite universities. But they close the door to discovery, exploration, and growth. To reverse this pattern, we need to stop conditioning students to believe their grades reflect their potential.

In his book The Icarus Deception , Seth Godin says that “the right answer is in the enemy of art.” It’s also the enemy virtually every outcome that leads to meaningful progress.

What we should have learned in school but never did is that it’s not only ok to be wrong, it’s necessary to navigate the turbulent waters of adulthood and life in the real world.


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