How I shortchanged myself for a 3.98 GPA – and what I would have done differently

Common: Asking numerous ‘how’ questions (How can I get better grades? How can I make my résumé look better? How can I earn more money?) without first answering ‘why.’

The following is a guest post from a fellow member of the TUL tribe from the beautiful country of Singapore. He’s got some intriguing ideas to share. So with no more further ado, let’s welcome Daniel Wong.

Uncommon: We all feel proud when we achieve something remarkable. Without a doubt, asking ‘how’ to get a specific result enables us to accomplish more, and to ‘climb the ladder’ more efficiently. This question of ‘how’ helps us think about ways to overcome obstacles and attain our goals – this is all fair and good.

But in order to lead an uncommon life, ‘why’ should always precede ‘how.’ Why is this goal so important? Why did you feel motivated to set this goal in the first place?

Asking ‘why’ before asking ‘how’ ensures that the ladder is leaning against the right wall (ie: the direction you’re traveling in) before you myopically start mounting the summit. Few things are more upsetting than being dissatisfied about the view from the ‘top.’

In the dictionary of life, ‘why’ comes before ‘how’

This is a phenomenon that I’m very familiar with. I was the salutatorian of my high school of a graduating class of 850 students and I went to Duke University on a full academic scholarship. While at Duke, I was inducted into three academic honor societies, and I recently graduated summa cum laude with a 3.98 GPA. Looking back, I never once received a grade lower than an A- throughout high school and college.

I accomplished what most students dream of – what the ‘system’ urges all good students to yearn for – but for most of my academic career, it only led to heightened feelings of insecurity and emptiness.

I had asked many effective ‘how’ questions: How should I prepare for this exam? How do I get into my teacher’s good books? How do I choose classes that will lead to easy A’s? And I received great answers. The problem was one of priorities – or lack thereof.

I had neglected to ask ‘why’ and consequently fooled myself into thinking that more accomplishments would eventually lead to fulfillment.

Happiness for all the wrong reasons

I’ll be the first to admit how difficult it is to question the fact that working towards ‘more’ or ‘better’ will not make you happy. This explains our obsession, as a society, to do ‘more’ and ‘better’ in school – and to own a bigger house, and drive a nicer car. We think to ourselves, ‘If I become the valedictorian, I’ll be happy. If I own a beach house mansion in the Hamptons, I’ll be happy. If I drive this year’s Porsche, I’ll be happy.’

But this is very rarely the case. People who lead uncommon – and profoundly meaningful – lives understand that ‘why’ always trumps ‘how’ or ‘what.’ Purpose must precede action.


The gravity of success

‘Success breeds success’ is a common saying. It’s true, but the implications go beyond the clichéd meaning of the phrase. As a recent graduate, I’ve reflected on my 16 years of formal education, and I’ve realized that success has the potential to imprison us within the alluring notion of ‘more.’

Success offers the experience necessary to accomplish more success of a similar or identical nature – it becomes easier and more quickly attained. There is also a growing pressure to continue to succeed (many times on an even larger scale) despite the fact that the success pursued might be unjustified. While there are benefits of these aforementioned tendencies, the danger is that we will refrain from exploring new areas of interest – those in which we have not yet demonstrated a burgeoning ability.

Personally, this has meant avoiding activities such as dance, theater, art and literature. I was so focused on maintaining my status as a ‘successful student’ that I shortchanged myself by ignoring my natural (but subdued) interests in activities that jeopardized my track record. I became a prisoner to my desire for ‘more’ success; an upholder of my own status quo. Unknowingly, the result meant settling for second best, a life lived on the terms set by others.

The only way to escape the gravity of an ill-defined definition of success is confronting routine actions with an often uncomfortable question: Why? So simple, but so underutilized; so revealing; so liberating.

Happiness is not found in end results but purposeful action. It’s the difference between being purpose-driven versus performance-driven. As Kent wrote here, an uncommon life is possible only if ‘success’ is personally designed, not socially determined.

Your thoughts?

Do you agree or disagree? Would love to get your thoughts in the comment section below.

About the author: Daniel Wong is a recent college graduate who currently works as a project engineer. He is passionate about helping young adults maximize their education, career and life. He is the author of The Happy Student: 5 Steps to Academic Fulfillment and Success, which will be published by Morgan James Publishing by early 2012. You can read his blog at Living Large and find him on Twitter.

Stay uncommon,

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