Amidst forgotten deadlines, missed classes, and failed exams in KAIST, it’s pretty common to hear the phrase “I want to go back to elementary school” from sleep-deprived students. Amongst my many memories from elementary school, perhaps the most unforgettable is this: on the first day of first grade, my homeroom teacher congratulated me for getting one step closer to adulthood, while at the same time warning me that from now on, everything would be more difficult. “However, as long as you listen to your teachers, study hard, and get good grades in exams, you’ll do well in the future.” Every day, every class, every teacher repeated that mantra, and every night I would recite it again before I sleep, until it got stuck like a lullaby I couldn’t get out of my mind.
Middle school was a bizarre phase. Most teachers still chanted the same mantra, yet a few heretics started preaching an opposing message: “Grades don’t define your future”. Some would tell us that a career in STEM was cool; some would tell stories about their genius high school friend who barely earned the minimum wage. Some would say that all of us could get good grades as long as we put in enough effort, while the rest would tell us that grades were essentially useless — what really mattered was whether or not we could make money. A lot of my friends praised me for my perfect report card, but behind my back, some born to wealthy families said that they would still be more successful anyway.
High school was where a new kind of faith was established. Exam drills were slowly converted to business classes, and the advice to major in the subject we were best at morphed into a command to select the major with the highest starting salary. On one occasion, a speaker explicitly told us not to become scientists or professors, because their pay was relatively low; instead, we should become entrepreneurs who could fund studies, employ researchers, and donate to universities. From that point on, I started forcing myself to fall in love with entrepreneurship, but no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t imagine spending the rest of my life doing it.
Since I was the first-ranked graduate of my high school and still get terrible marks in some exams here, I agree that our present grades don’t guarantee anything about the next stage in our lives. However, one thing I still can’t understand is this: why is it that someone’s “success” is only measured in terms of the amount of money they make? I condemn the idea that good grades and STEM-related jobs should be indicators of how well someone is doing in life, but that doesn’t mean financial worth should be the sole gauge either. It would be nice if each person could simply be what they want to be, without being judged based on their salaries. But at the same time, it is also true that without money, nobody would be able to do anything.
In elementary and middle school, teachers tell every student, including those excelling in business but not science, to get straight A’s. In later stages of life, the society where I grew up in expects every adult to be an independent business owner; high-paying employment is alright, but its standing is still lower than entrepreneurship. I don’t want to go back to elementary school, but the thought of having to either build my own startup company or find a decent STEM job seems too daunting. Society will always find a way to make you feel like a failure, and unless you can completely ignore what people say, you really will end up “failing” no matter what you do. Sometimes I’d look back and realize how lucky I am at this moment; other times I’d come up with a hundred thousand what-ifs that could’ve led to a much better present than what I have right now. I guess I’ve grown too tired to the point where I could finally shut my ears to what people say about me, as long as I’m happy with my life.