The Free A

Bryan Hendley
Nov 30, 2017 · 4 min read

One of the primary problems with standards based approach to things (education, for example), is that it can force us to take a boxed in, narrow, “standard” approach to things that aren’t always “standard” themselves (children, for example).

When we only measure against a standard or some type of rule/instruction manual that either we create in our minds or is handed to us from someone on a higher pay grade, then we can easily and consistently miss out on people and situations who might not fit neatly into the pre-described set of “standards”.

Author and thinker, Seth Godin, writes about the problem of simply following the manual on his blog and in his book, Linchpin:

Go to a McDonalds. Buy a Big Mac and a chocolate milkshake. Drink half the milkshake. Eat half

the Big Mac. Put the rest of the Big Mac into the milkshake, walk up to the counter and say, “I

can’t drink this milkshake, there’s a Big Mac in it.” You’ll get a refund. (Please don’t try this, but

yes, it works).

- Linchpin

I’ve never tried this, but it’s an interesting thought. In the book, Godin says that there is something addressing this in the manual, or the directives the employees receive. It’s easier, he notes, for the people in charge to give a standard response to a multitude of issues, rather than having the employees think for and solve problems by themselves. They just respond based on the standard.

Benjamin Zander, author (along with his wife) of The Art of Possibility and a conductor with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, writes about an experiment he conducted with a class he was teaching in which he decided to give all of his students an A in advance.

The requirement for this was that the students had to write him a letter, from their future selves, stating why they had earned the A in class that semester. Rather than the students constantly worried about what grades they would receive, or how they measured up as compared to their classmates, they were free to go about living into the “A” that they had already granted themselves.

The effects were amazing. The students saw themselves and their reason for being in class in an entirely different light, and were free to explore, experiment, and “fail” not as someone fearful of what the experiment might lead to, or as someone who might become a “failure”, but as an “A” student who was simply stretching themselves and pushing past their limits.

One student, from Taiwan, who had grown up in a strict educational environment, had this to say,

In Taiwan, I was Number 68 out of 70 student. I come to Boston and Mr. Zander says I am A.

Very confusing. I am Number 68, but Mr. Zander says I am A student…I am Number 68, but I am

an A. One day, I discover that I am much happier being A than 68. So I decide I am an A.

- The Art of Possibility

Zander says “It’s all invented” anyway. The 68 and the A. So we might as well choose the A.

In most things that we see, experience, and believe, there is an element of invention, sometimes by the powers that be, and sometimes by ourselves. The value that we feel and live into, usually depends on the value that we assign.

Might as well choose the A.

This perspective is meaningful in our interactions with others too. Michelangelo is credited with the idea that inside every block of stone lives a beautiful statue. We simply have to remove the stone around it to reveal what’s inside.

In ourselves, in how we see others, in how we approach our journey,

We can keep our eyes on the statue while sorting through the stone.

WAIT! We can’t just give out A’s!. Not to students, they wouldn’t try. Not to others, who don’t deserve it based on our past interactions. Not to ourselves…well, maybe to ourselves…

The free A isn’t there to give a free pass to allow students to slack off. To the contrary, it’s in place to remind students that they are an A student, and we’ve both acknowledged that, so what unique and valuable contributions might they make with this in mind?

The free A isn’t there to ask us to forget past transgressions from others, or ignore some negative interaction we may have had. The A, in this situation, may exist as much for us as for them. It allows us to see a person, rather than a problem, and where possible, gives us a chance to have a positive interaction, rather than carrying around a burden that we likely can’t do much about anyway.

The free A isn’t about telling ourselves that we are awesome, clearly an A, and nobody can tell us any different. It’s about recognizing that we don’t always have to berate ourselves with judgment, or allow anyone else to do so. It’s about experience over judgment. It’s about setting our own standards and living into those, rather than constantly stressing about the external. It’s about finding the unique and important value we have to add, and then adding it with courage and consistency.

In many ways ,the free A is about grace, both for others and for ourselves. Paraphrasing Zander,

The only grace you can have is the grace you give and accept.

Much Love,


Written by

Coach, Teacher, Author, Encourager. - I write words of encouragement focused on personal growth, parenting, and leadership.

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