Maybe it’s OK to be just average and still excel.

Is it OK to Be Just Average and Still Be Successful?

School is starting for many students now that Labor Day is here. They will be encouraged to give it their best because that’s what it takes to succeed in life and in a career.

Not so fast. Maybe it’s OK to be just average and still excel.

Take the recent news-making story of the Superintendent’s performance evaluations by the Sarasota County School Board. Members gave him a rating of 3 on a scale of 1 to 5. But they had to round up their combined rating of 2.7. With this boost, they approved a more than $12,000 pay raise, upping his salary to almost $200,000.

Not a bad day’s pay for someone entrusted to provide the best teachers and promote best in student performance.

But are these teachers now entitled to boost their students’ performance by inflating their grades so that average becomes excellent? After having worked for a number of companies and agencies, I don’t recall any of my managers ever patting me on the back and saying, “…not a great job, Jeannette, but it was OK so you’re going to get a raise and a promotion.”

Dangers of Overpraising

No, dear reader, in the real world average performance in a job doesn’t get rounded up to excellent.  Grade inflation is prevalent at the highest levels of education, including Harvard, where the most frequent grade is an A. I guess even grading on the curve is a bygone practice. True, that did inflate some grades at the high end of the bell curve but at least some students were acknowledged to be average or below average.

Nowadays, children are overpraised for almost everything they do. As this article in Parents notes, “Most parents end up saying (great job) about a hundred times a day—no judgment, but it’s not actually an effective way to motivate kids. This only creates a praise junkie who needs constant reassurance.”

If you’re praised for every little thing you do, and rewarded for a performance that falls short of excellence, then how do the really stand-out performers get rewarded? What’s the incentive to do your best?

Rudy Giuliani, former Mayor of New York, my former hometown, elevated his former bodyguard and chauffeur Bernard Kerik to head the prison system, and named him the Police Commissioner even though he lacked a college degree. His nomination to head the Department of Homeland Security was torpedoed when he was convicted of corruption and making false statements to the federal government.

Not in the Real World

The above examples illustrate that in almost every situation, it’s not OK to be just average. The real world rewards those who actually excel at what they do. That’s the incentive to do your best.

If you land in a job you’re not prepared for, you’ve either got to gain the necessary skills to keep it or you’ll be forced to move over or out.

That’s the real world.

Leave a Reply


  1. Private schools inflate grades enormously. In Sweden many from private schools who get accepted at university fail miserably because they don’t have the knowledge necessary despite having the highest grades.

    It’s definitely fine for average people to succeed and they do. But they should stay away from careers that force them to have a degree in a subject that they will have problems understanding and hence fail. Students in Sweden who graduated from government owned schools actually are much more successful at university because their grades are not inflated.

    • Catarina — sorry to learn grade inflation is a problem in Sweden, too. I think private schools feel the need to inflate grades because they charge such high tuition.

  2. Grade inflation was one of my least favorite parts of teaching. I made really good rubrics, too. Everyone wants to “excel” but not enough want to put in the effort to truly do so. It’s scary at times. Heck, one teacher I knew never put zeroes in the gradebook because that would drag averages down. Students were quick to figure out why turn most things in if missing assignments don’t get turned into the grade book? I hate to see what happens when many of these types of students make it into the working world.

  3. As a former HR person, I couldn’t agree more that constant praising and false accolades do far more damage than they help a child. Businesses do not operate that way and if you aren’t succeeding, the truth is that you lose your job.

    I can be average at math if my job is with words, but if I’m a CPA, I’d better do everything I can to excel!

    • RoseMary — Good point that you need to excel in the subjects that will get you a job. But you still have to put in the work.

  4. Some people will always be average and this may be okay for them. Perhaps they have not set their sights too high and are happy in their current status. I aim to be more than average but often feel average. I was not overly academic at school and did not have any obvious talents like my peers such as drawing, playing a musical instrument etc. This affected my confidence.

    I work hard and persevere to the end. I have worked on my writing skills and also sing in my church choir – something I never expected.

    It is good to instill confudence in children but not to the lengths that we are deceiving them.

    • Phoenicia — You’re correct that we aren’t all born to be rocket scientists. It’s important to learn what you are good at and then be guided to a career that leverages your strengths and not your weaknesses.

  5. Great post, Jeannette, and I couldn’t agree more! The real world doesn’t award trophies just for showing up. Results matter!

    • Thanks, Paul. Woody Allen is credited with the line, “Showing up is 80 percent of life.” But that’s not the reality.

  6. There ia always pressure from parents to ensure that their kids succeed. In UK parents pay for extra tuition to enable their kids to pass their A levels and get admission in good universities. The Indian parents even put pressure on their kids to study subjects such as medicine, pharmacy or accountancy. Subjects such as cookery and art are looked down upon and this puts so much pressure on kids who are not very academic.

    • Mini — Totally agree that not every student is going to be a great doctor or scientist. Cooking and art are just as important for those students whose aptitudes lean towards creative endeavors.

  7. It’s true that students who think they are excelling will have a rude awakening when they enter the real world of business.

  8. Hello, thanks for sharing this great informative blog post with us Jeannette, your post is helpful for anyone who is still struggling with the success. Cheers!
    With Regards