Academics and the Principle of Marginality

When we sit back to analyze our academic results we often list out a variety of reasons for our performance. These typically include: motivation or the lack of it, focus or the lack of it, the teaching standards and the difficulty of a subject.

But I believe it all comes down to arguably the most important theorem in economics: The Principle of Marginality. It states a particular activity should be chosen such that it yields the highest utility(profit) upon each additional unit of effort(cost) as compared to other activities.  This fundamental principle lies at the heart of many government policies and multi million dollar deals.

To illustrate this principle, consider the following example taken from the book Why Markets Fail? by John Cassidy. A Robinson Crusoe figure is stranded on an island and wonders how he should devote his time and energy to maximize his well being.  Should he spend more time on hunting or fishing, on building a shelter or making clothes? The answer is that he should spend his time in such a way that the additional benefit yielded by another hour devoted to any one of them is the same. If it is easier to catch a fish than hunt for a deer, he should head for the shore. If the roof is leaking in rain, he should repair the roof.

But how is all this related to academics you might think.

We all know that the academic grades are directly linked with the time you spend studying. However the study time needed to obtain a particular mark need not be the same of all since some may be able to study faster than others. But fast learners are no different than slow learners as far as the end results are concerned.  So for a particular student, the more number of hours spent studying results in higher grades and the point at which he stops studying decides his grades.

So when does he stop studying? He stops studying when he finds another activity which would give him a higher utility( read pleasure or satisfaction) for an additional unit of time spent on it. Toppers find no such activity and for them, academics would always yield the highest return and thats the reason for their  straight A’s. While some might be content with a few B’s  and instead of trying to convert them into A’s they would spend the extra time to relax as it would give them a higher utility.

The point is that whatever grades you obtain; the condition of marginality is satisfied as always.


Does ‘failure’ really exist?

What exactly is ‘failure’? Most dictionaries define failure as the lack of success. We define success. It is a goal which we wish to achieve. It could be getting a centum in the math exam or following a strict diet. So, when we do not achieve these self-defined goals, we say that we have failed in our task.

Let us take the examples of two students ‘A’ and ‘B’. Both are appearing for the same exam with different aims and different levels of preparation.

Lets say that ‘B’ is aiming to pass. He  has studied 40 percent of the syllabus and has practiced all possible types of questions related to that portion to make sure that he doesn’t face a new problem related to that 40 percent of the syllabus in the exam. In the end he scores 40, the number required to pass. ‘A’ believes that he has studied everything and is aiming for a perfect score. ‘A’ has practiced like ‘B’ covering almost the entire syllabus but he is not as comfortable with one chapter which leads to the loss of 3 marks. So although ‘A’ might take solace from being the topper, he has failed in his goal which was to score 100, while B has succeeded in achieving his goal of passing.

Clearly, ‘B’ has made sure that he would not fail while ‘A’ had jeopardized his chances of getting a perfect score by not preparing as hard on one chapter as he did for the others.

Before setting out to achieve our goals we often believe that we have met the prerequisite conditions to achieve it but may later end up failing. This is because those prerequisite conditions are set by us. Have we really included the solutions to all possible difficulties in it like the student ‘B’? If we haven’t done so we mostly end up ‘ failing’.( I say ‘mostly’ because you never know when lady luck can hit you )

So if we have met all those prerequisite conditions where is the question of failure?  If we make every single adjustment and be prepared for all the difficulties which may arise during our quest to achieve that goal, we will never fail. But if we have not met those prerequisite conditions, then is it fair to expect to succeed? Shouldn’t the student ‘A’ be expecting to score 97 instead of 100?

What I’m trying to say is that ‘Failure’ is a type of perception. It arises when there is a mismatch  between our definition of success and our level of preparation. For when we have not prepared ourselves entirely, we may not succeed as we haven’t achieved the goal set by us, but we do achieve something which is proportional to our level of preparation. If the student ‘A’ had aims of scoring 97, he would have succeeded as his definition of success and his level of preparation would have matched.

So when a person believes that he has ‘failed’, it actually means that he has succeeded with some other definition of success and not the one he wished for.

(P.S- This is a very complex philosophical post where I have tried my best to express my belief. You may not understand this post or disagree with me. In any case, please do leave a comment. )