Perfect Grades Don't Matter As Much As 'Soft Skills'

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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We see it everywhere when report-card time rolls around. Pizza Hut used to do it. Local restaurants do it. Ice cream places do it. Bring in your report card, and we’ll give you free whatevers for every A you have! Or maybe when you were a kid, you earned a certain amount of money for every A you brought home.

Or perhaps, like me, you were the child for whom an A was not rewarded, it was expected, and anything else was an abject failure. All A’s, all the time.

This is what our kids need, we’re told, in order to succeed. They need all A’s in middle school — a 4.0 or higher, earned by taking advanced credit classes — to get placed into the right classes in high school. In these classes, in turn, they have to score all A’s, and higher than a 4.0, which will lead them to a competitive college (the average weighted GPA of my alma mater is now a 4.68, which wasn’t even possible when I was a high school senior).

All A’s in college leads to either to a prestigious grad school, or to a high-flying job, where employers will demand to see your college and high school transcripts. All A’s, all the time. Forget the B (or C) students.

Anything less than the best is a failure.

Ask parents. Ask teachers of honors sections. Ask the kids themselves. The pressure to earn nothing but A’s is crushing.

Except it shouldn’t be. Because it turns out that the B students are really kicking ass.

This isn’t to say that A students aren’t successful (because they often are), just that A’s don’t automatically equal success. Inc. details what they call the “dirty little secret” that we might want to clue in all those stressed-out kids to. When West Point, the US Army’s ultra-prestigious military academy (which requires a Congressional recommendation for matriculation) did a study of its graduates, they were shocked to find that it wasn’t the A students becoming the 4-star generals. Instead, when it comes to “general officers in the U.S. Army–people who lead thousands of people and manage budgets in the billions of dollars–a disproportionately high number of them were B students.”

Wait. What?

That’s because the ability to lead doesn’t depend only on what Inc. calls “pure intellect.” Leadership depends, in a large part, on “soft skills.” These include “specifically interpersonal skills, the ability to manage and control your emotions, communication skills, leadership, adaptability, and problem solving.” It’s not that being an A student was bad. It’s that B students were more likely to have developed those soft skills needed to succeed.

Monster, the mammoth job site, says that soft skills help facilitate human connections. “Soft skills are key to building relationships, gaining visibility, and creating more opportunities for advancement,” Kathy Robinson, founder of Boston career-coaching firm TurningPoint, told Monster. They detail communication, teamwork, adaptability, problem-solving, critical observation, conflict resolution, and leadership as several soft skills that successful workers need to gain a good toehold in the business world.

While A students may be off cramming for tests, B-students are often learning these important soft skills critical to successful leadership. As Inc. says, “We all have friends who are super smart–but who almost might be too smart, which can make them hard to relate to.”

B students, on the other hand, learn to relate to other people. They learn to motivate them. They learn to work together as a member of a team. Because since they know they’re not the smartest person in the room, they have to coordinate their efforts with others in order to be successful.

And the B students who struggle learn the value of hard work much better than the A students for whom high grades come easily. I know that firsthand: Having earned A’s all my life, I entered graduate school unable to study, where I slammed into a wall that suddenly demanded hard work I simply didn’t know how to do. I sank. Kids who’ve always had to work harder than me, on the other hand, got along swimmingly.

In fact, in another article, Inc. specifically tells businesses not to be dazzled by impressive resumes. “As soon as I hear something like, ‘They worked for IBM,’ or ‘They went to Harvard,’ alarm bells start going off in my head because those are the wrong things to be looking at–at least as far as job qualifications go,” Inc. CEO Jim Schleckser wrote. He goes so far as to estimate that more than half of these hires actually fail.

Your A student suddenly hits the wall. Why? Because soft skills, like “quick decisions and taking action” are far more valuable than your kid’s intellectual prowess.

All kids need to work on their soft skills, regardless of where they are academically — even if they are getting As.

What does this all mean?

It means that your kid needs to be independent.

It means that your kid needs to foster interpersonal skills with children of all ages and skill levels.

It means that your kids needs to practice kindness.

It means that helicopter parenting, where children are coddled, where children have all their problems solved for them, where they never learn what it means to fail: they’re actually being set up for eventual failure.

It means boredom is a good thing, because it forces creativity.

It means you shouldn’t push, and push, and push. It means that a real childhood, a childhood full of climbing trees, learning to negotiate group rules, solving problems with other kids: This is what will give your kid the soft skills needed to succeed in life.

Push for kindness, communication, respect, and teamwork. Because in the end, that’s what your kid needs to become a real leader.

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