As a society, what are our goals and aspirations?
Based on my observations, it’s to get good grades, get a good job, and then die.
That might sound strange or morbid, so allow me to explain.
I work with children and teenagers to help them make the most of their potential. As such, I interact with many parents on a daily basis.
These are some of the most common things I hear from parents:
- “I want my child to get good grades so that he can get into a good school.”
- “I don’t expect my child to get straight As, but her grades should be good enough.”
- “I want my child to do well enough so that he can get a good job in the future.”
- “I hope my child will be able to get into a good profession like medicine or law.”
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get good grades or a good job. (By the way, the title of this article was inspired by a poster I saw that read, “You weren’t born to just pay bills and die.”)
But it seems like in our society, getting good grades and getting a good job aren’t just goals or concerns. They’re obsessions.
They’re what we spend most of our waking hours striving toward tirelessly.
They’re what we seem to think the point of education is – and possibly the point of life, too.
Of course, most of us would declare that we absolutely do not believe that the purpose of life is to get good grades, get a good job, and then die.
But given how much we emphasise to our children the importance of succeeding academically and getting a well-paying job, it would be hard to claim otherwise.
After all, it’s the story that’s been told for generations …
Study hard, so that you’ll do well academically.
So that you can get into a good school.
So that you can get a good diploma or degree.
So that you can get a good job.
I question the truth of this story, because we live in an information age where new opportunities abound. So the path to having a rewarding career is no longer that simple or direct – but that’s not the focus of this article.
I want to question the belief underlying the “get good grades and a good job” story, not the accuracy of the story itself.
The fundamental belief is that getting a good job – traditionally defined as a job that’s stable and lucrative – is the key to success and happiness.
What could be more inspiring than the hope of attaining success and happiness, right?
But few people wake up every morning feeling thrilled at the prospect of spending the day in the pursuit of good grades or a good job.
It’s more common for people to ask themselves, “Isn’t there more to life than just trying to get good grades or a good job?”
One reason the “get good grades and a good job” story isn’t inspiring is that it’s all about you.
Why do I say that?
I mean, shouldn’t you be inspired by a story that’s all about yourself?
On the surface, it’s motivating to think about what you want to achieve, the accomplishments you want to rack up, the prestigious job title you want to have, and the comfortable life you want to enjoy.
But the truth is, by focusing too much on yourself, you become nearsighted.
You think about what’s in it for you. You begin to compare yourself with others, which leads you to think in terms of competition rather than collaboration. You lose sight of the unique contribution you have to offer the world.
This explains why the “get good grades and a good job” story makes for an unsatisfying life.
What’s the alternative?
To build a great life.
I don’t claim to be a success guru, but I believe that leading a great life is …
- More about contribution, and less about achievement.
- More about building character, and less about building your résumé.
- More about serving others, and less about impressing others.
- More about doing meaningful work, and less about doing well-paying work.
- More about investing in relationships, and less about investing in the stock market.
- More about having a sense of mission, and less about having a high social status.
- More about making a difference, and less about making money.
Don’t get me wrong. We all have practical concerns like paying the bills and saving for our children’s education.
And there’s the rising cost of living and the uncertain economic climate to grapple with, too.
But if we settle for a “good enough” life that’s focused on merely getting good grades and a good job, then we’ll end up feeling discontented.
Not because we don’t enjoy comfortable lives, but because we’ve become more concerned about looking successful than being successful.
Those are two very different things, which explains why many people who have “good” jobs don’t seem to think their life is good at all!
I know plenty of people who have done well in school and who have secured stable, well-paying jobs. Yet they continually complain about spending too much time at the office, getting paid too little, and doing too many meaningless tasks at work.
Without a doubt, attitude is one part of the puzzle.
With a bad attitude, you might have the best job in the world and you’ll still be unhappy. But with an excellent attitude, you’ll embrace this saying by Harry Beckwith: “There’s no such thing as an ordinary job. There are only people who choose to perform them in ordinary ways.”
But more than our attitude, our aspirations play a crucial role in determining how much fulfillment we find.
Our aspirations are so important because they’re a reflection of the values we live by, and of what we believe life is all about.
If we tell ourselves that the point of life is to get good grades, a good job, and then die, we’ll never take full advantage of all the opportunities life has to offer.
The opportunity to connect with others.
The opportunity to build a strong family and community.
The opportunity to develop in character and skills.
The opportunity to impact the lives of others.
The opportunity to become a caring, courageous, grateful, and generous person.
The opportunity to lead a great life, not just a “good enough” one.
I’m far from perfect, and I know I have a long way to go to realise the ideals I’ve described.
But by embracing a larger view of life, we’ll build a society where we don’t go to school just to get good grades, but rather to ignite a passion for learning and making a difference.
And where we don’t obsess over getting a good job, but rather over doing great work that adds tremendous value to others – regardless of our job title.
This is the path to building a great life for ourselves and a great society for everyone.
Now’s the time for us to get to work and make it happen.
Daniel Wong is the bestselling author of “The Happy Student”. He specialises in helping students to become both happy and successful. Download his FREE e-book, “16 Keys to Motivating Your Teenager”. The views expressed are his own.
This post first appeared on Yahoo! Singapore.