You’re getting an “A” at the end of the semester. What will you have done to deserve it?

I decided to take a little break from reading catastrophe memoirs, and I picked up The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander.

Benjamin Zander, a conductor, explains a technique—“giving an A”— he used in his class on the Art of Musical Performance. From experience, he knew his students would be so anxious about their grades that they wouldn’t take risks—yet taking risks was essential to their mastery.

So he announced that each student would get an A for the course.

“However,” he told them, “there is one requirement that you must fulfill to earn this grade…you must write me a letter dated next May…‘Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because…,’ and in this letter you are to tell, in as much detail as you can, the story of what will have happened to you by next May that is in line with this extraordinary grade.”

He includes some excerpts from students' letters, and they’re astonishing to read. Putting themselves in the future, the students wrote letters that described with extraordinary excitement and relief the goals they’d attained and the fears they’d surmounted. It was surprisingly moving.

It struck me that the Happiness Project is a bit like the “giving an A” approach. Although I frame the process differently, I imagine very clearly how I want my life to have changed, for the better, by the end of this year.

Eliminating grades might seem like a utopian strategy that wouldn’t work in any other context, but my law school used a lesser version. At Yale (at least when I was there), for that first terrifying semester, all first-year students got a “Pass” for their classes, unless they did something extreme—like refuse to take the exams. And for all three years, Yale Law School only awarded grades of “High Pass,” “Pass,” “Low Pass,” and “Fail.” Low Passes were quite rare; I’ve never heard of a Fail.

The funny thing is, most of the students—even the first-years—studied just as hard. But this system took the edge off considerably, and it allowed people to take much greater risks in what they chose to do. I wrote a paper about dread!

In our last year of law school, a friend had a funny experience at a job interview.

“What’s your class rank?” asked the interviewer.

“We don’t really get grades,” my friend said, and he explained the Yale system. “So we aren’t ranked.”

“But surely you must have some idea of your rank in the class. Approximately where do you stand?”

“I really don’t have any way to know, because I don’t know what other people get.”

“But you must have some idea,” the interviewer insisted. “Take a guess.”

“Well,” my friend said, “I’d guess I’m first in my class.”

So try this: imagine that it's December 2006, and you're very pleased with the "A" you received in recognition of all that you accomplished this semester. What will you have done to deserve that "A"?

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