Gaming the System

The school year ended a few weeks ago. Normally, this is a time of relief and celebration. My wife and I (also known as "my wife") don't have to worry about our teenaged son staying up too late, starting/finishing his homework, or about which school function he's forgotten to tell us. He is not destined for MIT, but grades aren't usually an issue. This year has been different. His math grade has hovered around "U" for the last quarter or so and the class is cumulative: if he passes, he's golden, but if he fails, he has to take the entire class over.

Strangely enough, he didn't seem to care about it all that much. I asked him why he was doing so poorly and received answers like "I just don't get it." and "Lots of students are failing." I asked how he thought spending his summer retaking a full year of math would be and he replied "I can just take it again next year." "What? Taking two math classes at the same time your senior year will be miserable. You are setting yourself up for failure." With that, he explained that he only had to retake the one math class because the school didn't actually require a student to pass four years of math, just take four years of math.

The tiny cogs in my brain started working and I had a mini-epiphony. He had gamed the system! Because my son and a few like-minded slackers didn't want to take pre-calculus/calculus, they sand-bagged junior math so they could skate by senior year by repeating a class they already knew! Brilliant on the one hand, but so stupid on the other! Good GPA? College scholarship money? Bah.

If necessity is the mother of invention, ease must be its uncle. Companies rightly devote countless work-hours to streamlining processes or looking for ways to improve existing products or services. They recognize that the initial spark of innovation is hard, but refinement is something that can be worked through with effort, spit, and polish. It's not unlike the design process really. We know that what consumers relate to best—a good idea, communicated clearly—is typically the most elusive part of a project.

Perhaps I was too harsh with my son and his friends. They didn't game the system, they exposed its flaws so that it might be subsequently improved. Maybe they are just learning to beta test at a young age and have long careers ahead as efficiency managers or security testers?

Nah. I'm not buying it either.