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The “Good Student Meets the Real World” Phenomenon

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Reading time: 4 minutes
Let’s talk about what I call the “good student meets the real world” phenomenon. You know it.. It’s when you do everything right in school, only to find that those skills that helped you succeed academically are close to useless in the real world.
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When I was in school, I was not the star of the class but I was a good student. I got mostly good grades, and I got upset whenever I didn’t get a good grade. As students, we know that there are ways that people tell us if we’re doing well. Getting an A on the assignment means you’re on the right path. But, it also means that you start expecting validation from a grade. It means that every time you do something the way you’re supposed to, you’re made to feel special. And the truth is, this is not how it works in the real world.

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After getting used to receiving some sort of praise, being called smart, creative and hardworking for your entire life, it really comes as a shock when you’re 25, have two degrees, have successfully completed internships, have a bunch of volunteering experience, and are still struggling to land a decent or fulfilling job. “But I was the clever child, the capable student, the diligent one. How is this not good enough?” Maybe you look back and you think that you should have learned more languages, you should have been more active in the debate club, you should have been smarter with your career choice. Of course, that leads down another rabbit hole: the all too familiar “what if I had chosen a different major?” 

I often wonder whether I’d be better off doing something more creative in a tangible way, like being a pottery artist, a photographer, or an opera singer. Of course, such career paths are not as admired by the adults who surrounded the young, impressionable 17-year-old me trying to make a decision after high school. I’m not unhappy with the major I ended up choosing, but sometimes I can’t help but wonder what life could have looked like had I been encouraged to search for a different path. But I made my choice and now here we are, working internships that barely pay enough money to cover basic needs and chasing jobs that would replace me in a heartbeat if something were to happen to me.

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When you enter the workforce, all of a sudden your excellence is not rewarded - it is expected, and your big successes are merely another Tuesday. It’s your job to be good at what you were hired to do after all. And like that, your validation system collapses, as you wonder why nobody notices how hard you’re trying, how much effort you’ve been putting into your work, how much you’re craving the occasional “thanks” from someone who will reply to you in the work chat after you tell them you completed a complicated task three days ahead of the deadline. If you’ve ever felt like this, you know how it makes you question your entire belief system, how it makes you doubt your own intelligence - the same intelligence you were always told you possessed as a child.

Reaching the conclusion of this article, I don’t think I have something wise to say, or any insightful piece of advice to give. I struggle with the effects of the “good student meets the real world” phenomenon every day. Perhaps this is a realisation many people make when they reach this stage in their lives, and yet, nothing seems to change. We still depend on a grade to tell us if we’re good enough. We hope to hear something nice from our teacher during the parent-teacher meetings. We think that following the rules will get us to a good place and lead us to a fulfilling career. But then, when it’s time to go out into the world and chase that life we were taught to want, does any of that really matter? I think not. And I suppose at the end of the day it is this realisation that can set us free.