Perfect people

In “the upper reaches of the meritocracy,” young college graduates are trying to be “perfect avatars of success,” writes New York Times columnist David Brooks. He urges employers “bias hiring decisions against perfectionists” with “a high talent for social conformity” and no personality.

They got 3.8 grade-point averages in high school and college. They served in the cliché leadership positions on campus. They got all the perfect consultant/investment bank internships. During off-hours they distributed bed nets in Zambia and dug wells in Peru.

. . . Students who get straight As have an ability to prudentially master their passions so they can achieve proficiency across a range of subjects. But you probably want employees who are relentlessly dedicated to one subject. In school, those people often got As in subjects they were passionate about but got Bs in subjects that did not arouse their imagination.

Brooks wants employers to reward job applicants who’ve done something unfashionable, such as going to a Christian college to explore their values.

Interviewees should be asked: “Could you describe a time when you told the truth and it hurt you?”

“If the interviewee can’t immediately come up with an episode, there may be a problem here,” advises Brooks.

My first reaction: Now overachievers will have to come up with an unfashionable thing — but not too unfashionable — in addition to grades, leadership, internships and Peruvian well-digging. I recommend competing in an obscure sport, performing a medieval musical instrument or any activity that can’t be verified by the prospective employer.

Traditionally, job applicants admit to perfectionism when asked for their faults. If that’s out of fashion, they’ll need a new fault. Perhaps, inability to lie with conviction would be a good one. “I tell the truth, even if it hurts me. Let me tell you about the time . . . “

Fearing B’s, women reject STEM majors

Claudia Goldin/Harvard University - This chart shows the percentage of male and female students who received a given grade in introductory economics course who then later majored in economics. 

Women should stop trying to be straight-A students, choose tougher, math-centric majors and earn more later, writes Catherine Rampell in the Washington Post.

“The college majors that tend to lead to the most profitable professions are also the stingiest about awarding A’s,” she writes. Women may be leaving these fields because they’re afraid of getting B’s, two new studies suggest.

Most new college graduates are female, but only 29 percent of bachelor’s degrees in economics go to women. Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economics professor, analyzed how Econ 101 grades affected the chance a student would major in the subject.

She found that the likelihood a woman would major in economics dropped steadily as her grade fell: Women who received a B in Econ 101, for example, were about half as likely as women who received A’s to stick with the discipline. The same discouragement gradient didn’t exist for men. Of Econ 101 students, men who received A’s were about equally as likely as men who received B’s to concentrate in the dismal science.

Duke Professor Peter Arcidiacono is finding similar trends in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Women enter college just as prepared as men in math and science, but few choose a STEM major (not counting biology) and even fewer complete a degree.

Plenty has been written about whether hostility toward female students or a lack of female faculty members might be pushing women out of male-dominated majors such as computer science. Arcidiacono’s research, while preliminary, suggests that women might also value high grades more than men do and sort themselves into fields where grading curves are more lenient.

Women “want something where the professor will pat them on the back and say ‘You’re doing so well!’,” speculates Goldin. Men have their “eyes on the prize.”

Let your kids fail

The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success

Go Ahead, Let Your Kids Fail, writes Megan McArdle on Bloomberg. Her new book, The Up Side of Down advocates “learning to fail better.” That includes taking on challenges and being ready “to pick ourselves up as quickly as possible and move on when things don’t work out.”

After a book talk, a 10th-grade girl said she understood about “trying new things, and hard things,” but she couldn’t risk it. “I’m in an International Baccalaureate program and only about five percent of us will get 4.0, so how can I try a subject where I might not get an A?” 

High school shouldn’t be about perfection, writes McArdle.

If you can’t try something new in 10th grade, when can you? If you can’t afford to risk anything less than perfection at the age of 15, then for heaven’s sake, when is going to be the right time?

Now is when this kid should be learning to dream big dreams and dare greatly. Now is when she should be making mistakes and figuring out how to recover from them. Instead, we’re telling one of our best and brightest to focus all her talent on coloring within the lines.

Too many achievers are trying to get into a small number of elite colleges, writes McArdle. Upper-middle-class parents are pushing their children “harder than ever — micromanaging their lives.”