A Fish Climbing a Tree: If My Grades are Below Average, What Do I Do?


“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

You’ve probably heard this quote before. It’s often attributed to Albert Einstein, but nobody is quite sure if he’s the one who really said it.

What exactly does it mean? Well, it means that everybody has their strengths, but if you never get the chance to explore those strengths, you might end up feeling weak and helpless, sometimes, instead of strong and proud.

During the school day, the strengths repeatedly being tested are math, English, science, etc. That means, if you struggle with the material — whether you’re having difficulty retaining information, listening in class, or just comprehension in general — you might be feeling quite downtrodden. That’s not a fun experience to have for eight hours a day!

Yes, grades are a metric used by your teachers and by colleges to measure your aptitude in school subjects, and often to gauge your drive and dedication as well.

However, if you simply struggle in a subject, you may be trying your hardest, and it still may not show through on your final report card.

You’re a fish trying to climb a tree!

So, if the fish is good at swimming instead, then what is your untapped strength?

Try writing a list of things you know you’re good at, and of your accomplishments that make you feel confident and proud. Are you a master chef? Are you really good at giving your friends advice, and comforting them through a rough time? Are you the MVP on your field hockey or cross country team?

If you’re having trouble thinking of something that makes you feel like a “freestyling fish,” schedule a meeting with your guidance counselor, who can direct you to resources that will help you start to figure things out.

First of all, it’s important to recognize that not everyone’s abilities lie with standardized testing, or with processing new information quickly. Not everyone is good with numbers or with memorizing historical periods.

Even though colleges are keen on these skills (and on admitting students who demonstrate them), extracurriculars, volunteer work, and passions and hobbies are important to emphasize on a college application. A particularly resonant personal story in an application essay, that shows off an individual’s excellent character and potential, will catch the eye of many colleges. It distinguishes a student who looks great on paper (grades, clubs, sports) from a student who can advocate for themselves uniquely, and who could really represent the college in a remarkable way.

Or, perhaps a traditional 4-year college experience isn’t what you’re looking for. Starting a business or going to vocational school are strong options, and are every bit as credible, exciting, and meritorious as going to college.

Skilled trade workers such as electricians and welders are in very high demand. This is in part because society, and therefore high school institutions, started emphasizing a college degree as a necessity, and as the best option for every student.

This couldn’t be further from the truth, and the pressure to conform rigidly to one idealized plan — especially such an expensive one! — can be extremely damaging for students who, completely reasonably, know that college is not the right plan for them.

Because of the push to get a college degree, skilled trades don’t have enough interested new workers to fill the ever-present demand in the fields of manufacturing, construction, agriculture, etc. “There were over 3 million jobs in 2008 that were sitting there,” says Mike Rowe, who started his own organization to get young people interested in skilled trades.

Some people see a skilled trade career as “lower status” than a college degree, which is a completely unfair assumption! Laborers build the underlying infrastructure that keeps the world turning, and often require specialized skills and all types of intelligence on the job.

Perhaps you aren’t interested in skilled trades, and that’s okay too. The important takeaway is that sometimes there’s a “stigma” against certain careers, and against non-academic types of intelligence. Someone who’s a great artist may be seen as less “prestigious” than someone who’s getting a STEM degree, even though both of these people are fantastically talented individuals!

One of the key parts of a happy life is being able to do what you want to do. To be that swimming fish, even if that means swimming against the current of other people’s expectations.

As famous advice blogger Captain Awkward writes to a reader who is anxious about grades, “You don’t know anything about someone else by knowing their grade.”

She (Captain Awkward) is right. You can’t judge what kind of a person someone is (how dedicated they are to their passions, or how ambitious they are) by their grades. While they are a measure for determining certain types of aptitude, while they are important to colleges, and while they do show off hard work, they also aren’t a future indicator of success.

Even if you’re not quite sure what type of success you’re going to pursue, or how you’re going to do it, make sure you don’t base your self-worth on your grades. Instead, seek out the help of teachers, counselors, family members, and community members who can help you find the path that’s right for you.

written by Kent Irving on Sept 22nd 2017

photo by Thought Catalogue from unsplash.com

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