• Mel Butcher

Outcomes, not grades.

Updated: Jan 16, 2021

pile of colorful children's blocks

A friend recently shared some advice they heard on a podcast. Paraphrasing - people should focus on doing B+ work.

That friend went on to ask, "Does this mean that people shouldn't strive to do their best?"


Seth Godin once spoke about being a student on his podcast, Akimbo:

"We don't remember all of the opportunities we had to learn, to actually transform ourselves, because we've built a system all around the idea that what we're actually paying for is the label. And for a really long time, in an industrial economy, that label was priceless. It was a big sort. It separated winners from losers. You got hired to work at Goldman Sachs. Or you got picked to be on the writing crew at Saturday Night Live, because almost all the people who wrote for many years at Saturday Night Live worked on the Harvard Lampoon. The Harvard Lampoon, literary magazine at Harvard, that you could only work on if you got picked to go into Harvard = double pick, triple pick...
What label do you have?"

He is, talking about a lot here, including problems with the educational industrial complex -- butts in seats, the compliance model, etc. I won't go into that here other than to segue; it is this complex that gave us a reliance on grades as a proxy for self worth.

For swaths of people who have been indoctrinated, literally from childhood, to believe that their goal should be to get the best grade, the best label... for many of them, the thought of striving for less than an A+ might be abhorrent.

Still for others, perhaps those who struggled, those who had too many outside stressors to be able to focus on grades, being told to focus on B+ work might be an empowering idea.

Is thinking about your efforts in your life and as graded really helpful?


Grades measure ability to take an exam or comply. Grades do not measure someone's actual skill at creating the outcomes we care most about.

I can just hear the echoes of fellow engineers and other professionals... "Would you willingly get on an airplane knowing its designers did B+ work?"

To which I would say - is this really an apt question?

The planes we get on, the bridges we drive over, the vaccines we take... all of these have large teams of professionals involved, teams who collectively have decades or centuries of experience.

I can't imagine that every single individual on the team brought A+ work to their job every single day like perfect little automatons. This is, in part, why these things are designed and orchestrated by teams and not individuals. They are designed in stages, with many checks and recalculations at multiple different points.

Because, guess what...

...even A+ people make mistakes.

We have many safety measures in place for the design of bridges, airplanes, elevators, and the like. Those safety factors and requirements are based on what we, collectively, have learned over time. The protocol improves over time and it works, keeping us far safer than we were even a century ago, because it has been tested and retested by people who were willing to try things (to say nothing of government mandated safety measures). And they tried things at a time when it might not yet have worked or might not have been safe.


Ultimately, I didn't interpret "focus on doing B+ work" as,"don't pursue great work". Rather, what I heard was a comment about not letting that story in your head about "ready" or "perfect" stop you from shipping your work.

What outcome are you seeking to create?

Have you been chasing a label as a way to hide from shipping your work?

Have you been waiting for someone to "pick you" instead of stepping up to pick yourself?


If you can create the outcome you want, and even if you can successfully iterate on the path toward that outcome... that is positive progress and a win.

There are all kinds of stories we tell ourselves, excuses we can make to hide from delivering work that we set out to perform and outcomes we set out to cultivate. Maybe your story has to do with feeling like an imposter. Or perhaps your story has to do with believing your work isn't quite good enough - a story of the need for perceived perfection.

But to progress, we all have to ship work. That work will get tested, iterated upon, and the cycle will continue.

And we will learn.

We have the opportunity continue to make our work better, to create positive outcomes for whomever it is we seek to serve.

I hope for our sake, for those whom you seek to serve, you cultivate an internal dialogue of delivering on promises - to ship your work.



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