Gina Choe: What is a true intellectual?

Tuesday, January 10, 2017 - 10:45am

In one of my classes, we had an opportunity to talk candidly about grades. One student humored the crowd: “The smarter you get, the worse grades you get!” He received a laugh from his audience, including me. It was a typical “talent” vs. “striver” debate.

Initially, I found some comfort in my classmate’s statement — it was a tempting way to justify the bad grades I have received. However, the utterance carried a belittling tone toward the “strivers,” which I found offensive. If you try to get good grades, are you not a true intellectual?

Researchers at Vanderbilt University have found that gifted people are more likely to hold top positions in all professional domains. On the other hand, Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, finds that it is perseverance and passion for long-term goals — grit — that leads us to achievement. “Talent doesn’t make you gritty,” she corroborates the old adage that hard work does pay off.

According to Professor Chia-Jung Tsay from University College London, however, it is human nature to prefer "talents," or “naturals,” over “strivers.” His research shows that employers innately prefer the potential in those who are naturally talented to those who have demonstrated achievements with effort. The popularity of the college-dropout-turned-mogul success story — think Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, etc. — illustrates the idolization of “naturals.” A friend once told me, "I wish I didn't have to go to college so I can get rich quick.” Rather than small rewarding steps, we, as millennials, have come to only acknowledge success by glorifying the final product.

At a prestigious university like ours, there is a large sense of pre-professional culture created by competitive groups of students. Seemingly, there are three types: 1) a 4.0 GPA student with an obsession over perfection, 2) a 3.8 GPA student working on an honors thesis and 3) a 3.5 GPA student with an appetizing resume. However, I was a fourth type: a student with a fine GPA but with no career title attached to my introduction. I did not identify myself as “pre-med” or “pre-law.” Perhaps I felt confined by this sense of identification that I don't feel the need to perfect my GPA.

Reality hit me when I met with a professor at the University Medical School to ask for a research position. Her office had a scholarly aura with loose papers draped over her desk. “You need better grades,” she instructed me. “A bad grade can haunt you for a lifetime.” Her dissatisfaction with the 0.1-point difference in my GPA to her expectation of excellence felt massive. I had predicted her response, but rejection is always a head-spinning experience.

Grades were not unimportant to me, but I found myself giving more importance to things outside of school: I chose to attend my friend's mom's funeral instead of preparing for an exam. I chose to spend my study nights providing company for my stressed father. And I chose to spend my last summer as a travel guide for my grandma's first and last visit from Korea instead of getting an internship. Was I sacrificing my grades for the wrong things?

I held back my tears and soldiered forward with my integrity. After an hour of conversation, her push about good grades diminished. Instead, she emphasized building character and her appreciation of my own. “You remind me of my best student who now studies at Harvard Medical School,” she said. “Pursue what makes you happy and have fun.” This was an important puzzle piece for me.

I began to pick out courses that truly interested me, which were less lecture-based biological science courses and more discussion-based neuroscience and social justice seminars. The following semesters, I prioritized learning as a student and gave my best effort to be a present daughter to my parents and an exciting friend to others.

As a result, I became smarter, with better grades. I realized that emerging interest and effort produced the best work.

The professor’s message to me rings every day like a morning alarm. The message was not to simply get perfect grades, but to use them to show that you are responsible and to reflect your character as a motivated person.

Considering what my classmate had said in class, I find that sometimes we are so focused on the end results that we undermine the hard and grueling effort it takes in the process. Barbara Corcoran, a real estate mogul, reminds us, "I imagined every great thing that happened in my life. Then I worked like hell to make every detail come true.”

Stand on two feet. Focus on the person that you want to become and the characteristics that you want to build. Perhaps as a side effect, you can get smarter, too.

Gina Choe can be reached at ginachoe@umich.edu