“excellent! B+!”

My father has a curious way of encouraging me. I’ll say, “well, Dad… I had a great year. The design thinking program launched, we ran four major events in the lower and middle schools. I won the respect and admiration from my colleagues that I needed, to move the design thinking project forward. My students did great on their examination. The seventh graders are all abuzz about their history projects, thanks to Di. I ran (with my colleagues) an awesome seminar for twenty teachers from around the state. Another school association has hired me to run some workshops for them, too. I’ve really made my professional life come alive. And I’m happy.”

And he’ll say…

that’s really awesome, son. I’m so proud of you. B+.

It’s not as awful as it sounds. Let’s face it. We’re teachers. We love the A+ students, the ones who already have their act together, the ones who “get” what excellent work looks like, reads like, sounds like. We love reading a paper without a grammatical alert or a misplaced modifier or an awkward apostrophe. And we find and share the joy that comes from the finding of a student so pulled together, so driven, so capable, so dedicated.

But… You know… Who cares? We don’t leave as much of a lasting impression on those kids. We don’t affect their lives as much. We don’t encourage those students to chase their dreams — they already have dreams, and they know how to chase them. Hey, they’ve got goals and they know how to reach them, and when they reach those goal posts, they usually know how to move them. Good for those kids. Great. Awesome. Get out there, figure out what you want, go for it. You can get it done.

My dad has been giving me a whole series of B+’s since I was 7 or 8. I used to resent him for it. I’m now about to turn 42, and in 35 years of striving I’ve gotten exactly one (one!) A–. [I deserved it, too. I was awesome that day. Like, if three bishops had seen me that morning, I’d be a living saint already.]

But no. I’ve had a B+ average from the most important teacher in my life, for more than twice as long as most of my own students have been alive.

And it’s because he loves me. He wants me to succeed and grow and help others be a success in the worst way. And he knows that A+ students don’t do that. Those A+ kids are too much driven by external factors. Or they burn out. Or they become stress monsters. Or they become arrogant, prideful. Or overconfident. Or too dependent on their teachers for outside validation.

Those B+ kids, though. They know they can do better. They know they can work harder or smarter or be more canny or work just a bit different than anyone else. Their drive to succeed is partially external, partially internal. The B+ isn’t about the quality of their work now; it’s about lighting the pilot light of their furnace and seeing how hot they can burn. It’s about stoking them up, and then providing a slow, consistent stream of fuel.

But this isn’t about my students who will be getting grades soon. This is about my dad: the man who gave me another B+ today, after I told him what an awesome year at school it really was. The man who, since before many of my readers were born, was handing down grades that said, “adequate and a little more. But what can you do now?”

For a long time I thought I was working hard and making big things happen for him. It’s taken a long time for me to understand that he was making me think that to help me light my pilot light, to drive me toward the kind of successful outcomes I wanted, at the things I wanted to do. He wanted me to light the fire inside; and he understood that all it took was a B+… again and again and again.

Now… I give me the B+. I am the one striving to build more, do more, create more. Because the world, of course, values that sort of thing more and more, these days. Dad said,

when I started in business, of course, everybody said, “you’re only as good as your last deal.” But now, twenty years, twenty-five years on, they say, “you’re only as good as your next deal.”

And that means that your last effort always has to be a B+. You’ve got to reflect on the experience, see what has to change, build anew, and make it better. The next big thing is started already and you’ve got to be leaning into it because failure puts you out of the game.

So. B+. “Because I love you, son.”

Happy Fathers’ Day.

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