03/27/2012 02:53 pm ET Updated May 27, 2012

What Is a "Quality Student"?

Note: I was asked to give a short speech to the Quality Students of the Tonawandas on March 22, 2012. I decided to ask them to call the notion of "Quality Student" into question and come up with their own definition.

Congratulations on being named a Quality Student of the Tonawandas. Many years ago, I was a Quality Student, so I am honored to speak tonight to this illustrious group; surely many of you will go out into the world and make a significant impact.

I worried my parents by studying philosophy in college. As a consequence, I often ask undermining questions, not because I'm a contrarian, but I find that skepticism often engenders a better understanding of the concept in question.

The question that was on my mind in preparing for this speech was: what exactly is a "quality student"?

When I was a quality student, I was surprised to see some people in the room -- they didn't fit my notion of quality. But even worse, I was sad that some of my friends, whom I considered to be of supreme quality, were not in the room. Take a look around you right now -- not to judge -- but to ask yourself the question: who isn't here that should be?

Since I was coming back to my hometown, I also tried to channel a younger Mark Johnson from high school.

Back then, numbers and awards were disproportionately important to me. I knew my rank in my class. I knew the rank of my university stood in US News & World Report. I knew my IQ, my SAT scores, how many AP classes I took... heck, I even knew my GPA to 7 significant digits.

Numbers gave me a sense of comfort, as if the world were patting me on my back and telling me, "You've done a great job, Mark," or, in my more arrogant moments, "You're better than other people."

Luckily, life has disabused me of my unhealthy focus on numbers. I'm a math and science nerd, so I can't escape the notion that numbers do shed light on the world, but they don't tell the whole story.

If you're sitting in this room, you probably know a lot of the numbers that relate to you. I'd like to question how accurately those numbers reflect reality. For example, class ranks were announced today at NTHS, so think about that number: do you consider everyone above you in your class rank to be smarter than you? Everyone below you to be dumber?

Being smart isn't about IQ or grades. It's about what you do with the intelligence in your head. One of the reasons I was so excited to get out of high school and into college was that I wanted to be in a classroom of people who wanted to learn, not a classroom of people who wanted a grade. In the working world, intelligence is prized, but only insofar as it allows you to make an impact on your coworkers and product.

Tonight I'd like to suggest to you that quality -- whether to a student, a parent, a teacher, or a CEO -- is something that is subjective, personal, and difficult to quantify. Though you'll often find yourself going back to numbers as a guide to quality, when you look into the mirror and judge yourself, no numbers well help you feel better.

The world is full of extrinsic judgment: people telling you that something is bad or good, or that you should do this or that, or that some people are "better" than others. The easy way out is to use society's view of quality to guide your life.

It's not easy to define success in life using your own internal system of judgment -- just as it's difficult to define happiness or love -- but the rewards are great. You'll feel a sense of satisfaction with your own life that you'll never get by using external factors. Let's face it, there's always going to be someone richer, smarter, or more successful, but perhaps you can still be happy and feel successful, even if you aren't "the best." You can only do this by justifying to yourself, by your own high standards, that you are successful.

Tonight is a time where you can feel excited that a community has come together and given you collective pat on the back. I join them in saying, "Great job!" But, it's important not to spend your life looking in the rear view mirror. The real challenge for you is not only to enjoy being a Quality Student tonight, but also to wake up tomorrow, figure out what "Quality" means to you, and tireless spend every day working to become a Quality Person.

Cross-posted from Deliberate Ambiguity.