In previous blogs, I have spoken about what constitutes a good GMAT score, how hard is the GMAT, and the possibility of a GMAT retake. In some sense, almost every article on this blog is about getting a good GMAT score. In this blog, I want to address one important paradox that eludes many folks studying for the GMAT. To discuss this paradox, I will start in a relatively unexpected place: a Hindu sacred text.
The fruits of action
The Bhagavad Gita is one of the central scripture of Hinduism. This book was the basis of Gandhi‘s life and work. Written almost 2000 years ago, it portrays a conversation between Krishna (an incarnation of God) and Arjuna (a noble warrior). In chapter 5 of this work, Krishna teaches Arjuna to act but renounce the fruits of action, or more simply, to act without attachment to the results.
Now, some spiritual folks might tell us that this advice could lead to some kind of illumination. Some psychologist might be in a position to tell us how this advice could benefit us in a number of spheres. All that is beyond our concerns here. In the very narrow, very practical realm of performing well on the GMAT, how does this help?
Doing well on the GMAT
Think about all the recommendations we might make to someone who wanted to do well on the GMAT
1) learn the format of the GMAT
2) learn the rules of and directions for the individual question types
3) follow a proven study schedule
4) learn math content & strategies
5) learn verbal content & strategies
6) do practice questions
7) take mock tests
We certainly could add more, but those are uncontroversial examples of concrete steps anyone could take to improve performance on the GMAT. These are moves that are likely to boost anyone’s GMAT score.
Notice, one item conspicuously absent from that list is: focusing on your target score. Thinking about the result, the fruit of the actions, the GMAT score itself, is actually profoundly counterproductive. If your goal is to do as well as you can, you will already be motivated to follow the seven steps above and any other concrete steps. Thinking about a numerical target adds nothing. In fact, any time you spend thinking about a particular numerical target, and how close or not close you are, is time you are not thinking about concrete concepts and strategies. Concepts and strategies will further your progress toward a good GMAT score. By contrast, thinking about the numerical target does absolutely nothing to help you achieve that target, and in most cases, it generates anxiety and distraction that works against you. One of the essential strategies for achieving GMAT success is to let go of any attachment to what score you want and, even more importantly any stories about what a good or bad GMAT score would mean.
This paradox will bother people, because for some people, getting that target score is their principal motivation: without it, folks might worry that they will have no motivation. Think about it this way. If my goal is “I must get a 720”, then the thought of that goal and any attachment to that goal will actually work against me in achieving that goal. By contrast, if your motivation is the ideal of excellence, embodying excellence as a mindset, then living that high standard is its own reward.
For example, if you are attached to a score, then every time you make mistakes on a practice session or in a mock test will be cause for concern and anxiety. By contrast, the habit of excellence is not bothered by making mistake during the learning process, because every mistake is a profound opportunity to improve your overall understanding. One of the ideals of excellence is: never make the same mistake twice. That’s a hard ideal for which to strive, but the student who can follow it consistently seems massive improvement over time. After getting a question wrong, energy spend on “what else do I have to learn?” or “how can avoid this mistake in the future?” is energy well spent. By contrast, anxiety about “will I achieve my target score?” does zilch to move you forward, and because the anxiety generates distraction, it is actually entirely counterproductive. It is the ultimate waste of time in GMAT studying.
Part of what I am discussing here is the difference between extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. The student who is attached to achieving a particular target score is extrinsically motivated. The student who strives to embody and live out the mindset of excellence is intrinsically motivated. Folks who are externally motivated have less stamina and resilience, and generally are less likely to perform at their highest potential. The advantages to intrinsic motivation are widespread and profound. This is true on the GMAT, in business school, and throughout one’s career.
Take actions toward improving your GMAT performance without any attachment to the score that will result. If you want a good GMAT score, then absolutely stop thinking about that score and get to work! If you would like to respond or argue, or if you have a question about what I’ve said, please let us know in the comments section.