The myth about good grades

Why exams don’t measure the key qualities needed to achieve professional success

When I was younger I was always told that I needed to do well at school.

“If you want to be successful, you need to get good grades.”
My mum

My caring mother also said that if I swallowed a watermelon seed a watermelon would grow inside me, so I appreciate I need to take her advice with a pinch of salt.

Having had the privilege of working with such an eclectic mix of talent across the digital, advertising and finance worlds, I’m now in a better position to reflect on my mum’s advice.

My humble opinion?

I’m risking the wrath of all parents and teachers by saying this but I believe that there isn’t much truth in what she said.

Sorry Mum.


Ok I admit.

Good grades give less experienced professionals more job options. It’s easier to get a job fresh out of school and university with good qualifications because it shows that you are smart and/ or work hard.

But good grades don’t guarantee you a job. You also need to impress in the interview. Plus good grades become less and less important in signalling your professional ability as your career progresses.

There is also an argument to suggest that grades reflect effort, not intelligence. Some of the smartest people are also the laziest. Moreover, they may not be good at exams (often big memory tests) or may not suit the education system. As a result, smart people can get poor grades.

Perhaps most crucially though, once you’re in a job, the skills and knowledge you needed to earn those grades mean very little.

Business is more about being street smart, not book smart

In business we don’t need to know anything about trigonometry, oxbow lakes or the periodic table. It’s about being street smart.

What’s the difference?

We need to have situational awareness. We have to trust our own judgment about what matters.

At school “what matters” wasn’t important. We just had to learn what we were told to learn.

We need to work smart. We need to continually find unique and better ways of doing our job. Ways that improve quality, save time, simplify etc. Ways that make users’ lives better.

At school we needed to learn the whole syllabus……….regardless…..

We need to be innovative and creative. This is true whether we work in finance, IT or design. We need to constantly evolve to stay in line with shifts in technology and consumer trends. Our work needs to be presentable and easy on the eye. It can then be appreciated and understood by whoever sees it.

At school we couldn’t be creative in Maths or Science lessons………. except when we had no idea what we were doing.

We need a sharp commercial instinct. This means having a good understanding of how to make money, including understanding how to sell oneself (one’s ideas and expertise), not just a business’s product and services.

At school we needed to solve equations using algebra.


……… who cares what X equals?

We need resilience. To achieve professional success we have to be prepared to fail. No one gets everything right first time. It’s about failing fast and learning faster.

At school some people that consistently achieve success probably never experience big failures. They may not even be prepared to fail. This stifles innovation, creativity and the desire to do the untested. It also probably creates a reluctance to accept failure when it does happen, preventing the valuable learning that comes from it.

Nearly all these street smart qualities come from experience, not from reading a book.

Business is more about EQ than IQ

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to notice, understand and anticipate one’s own and others’ feelings in order to communicate effectively, empathize with people and overcome challenges

Business is all about people. So it’s not surprising that years of research has shown that EQ is the key driver of professional success, not IQ. Technical expertise is just far less valuable if we don’t have the ability to interact and share it with other people.

“Emotional Intelligence abilities [EQ] were four times more important than IQ in determining professional success.” Daniel Goleman, psychologist and international author
“People would rather do business with a person they like and trust rather than someone they don’t, even if the likeable person is offering a lower quality product or service at a higher price.” Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winning psychologist

The key message is that someone with a poor education but high EQ can be far more successful than someone with an impressive education but low EQ.

On the contrary, emotional intelligence doesn’t bring academic success. No amount of empathy and people skills can convince an examiner to give us better grades.

Business feeds off passion

In business being passionate about the work we do significantly increases our chance of achieving success.

This is because with passion we have more enthusiasm, desire and drive. We work harder. Even if a task is challenging we don’t give up, we do what we can to find solutions to the problem. This doesn’t go unnoticed by colleagues.

Perhaps most importantly we are happiest when we live our passions. This is the most important measure of success. A 50 year career without passion and happiness will become unfulfilling and tiresome fast.

To achieve academic success you don’t need passion. It helps but it’s not a necessity. In fact if you are smart enough, you don’t even need to work that hard to achieve good grades.

In business personality counts

We spend more time with our colleagues than we do our own family and friends. So clearly we want to work with people we like.

We need to fit in. The better people get on, the easier it is to collaborate and get better results. This is important because the collection of collaborating brains is far more powerful than the sum of individual ones.

“The first thing to look for when searching for a great employee is somebody with a personality that fits with your company culture. Most skills can be learned, but it is difficult to train people on their personality.”
Richard Branson

When times get tough and it’s necessary to work all hours, laughter not brainpower is what helps us through.

Laughter releases endorphins, it puts us at ease, it boosts morale and it brings people together. But perhaps most importantly, it makes work more enjoyable even when it‘s midnight on a Monday.

“People rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing.”
Dale Carnegie, writer and lecturer

On the other hand, the sad truth is that a great personality doesn’t earn good grades. If it did our funny, amiable but IQ-challenged friends would have flown through school with straight A’s.

Sadly they didn’t. Because however unfair it might seem, the answer to the question “Where was the Magna Carta signed?” is not “At the bottom.”


At Pancentric Digital we believe that to be successful, it’s important to have the balance of IQ, EQ and other intangible qualities discussed above.

Obviously we look for intelligent and rational thinkers. But a high IQ, although important, is not enough to hire someone.

We also want individuals with commercial instinct. Individuals with real passion. Individuals who get things done. Individuals who love collaborating with others and having fun in the process.

In particular there is one quality that we look for that is difficult to define. An intangible quality in a person that can bring to life a team, project or company.

A certain “Je ne sais quoi”.

It’s something in their eyes, actions and words that makes you think


A great example of this came from one of our very own Pan-people, who during an internal workshop said:

“We don’t just want to build websites; we want to change the world!”

Cue laughter, smiles, togetherness………..

…..followed by that warm feeling inside on realising how right he was.

This turn of phrase has actually now become an unofficial company mantra.

Sadly though, such inspiring words aren’t rewarded by the standardised testing that dominates the curriculum these days.

The result?

Good grades just don’t reflect this kind of talent.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.