I’m the kid in your class at school who came top of every test. I’m the one who got 98% in her Woodwork exam, despite having no practical skills at all. I’m the kid who was congratulated by the Head Teacher for being “a Credit to the School”, when I got a string of A’s in my GCSEs.
Do you hate me yet? Are you feeling the desire to call me Swot, or Speccy Four-Eyes or (worse) Teacher’s Pet?
I spent a large chunk of my formative years being told how great I and how important academic success is. Surely that’s a good, affirming, confidence building way to start out in life?
Well, sort of.
The only problem is – if exams is the thing you’re best at, it’s very easy to approach everything in life as an exam. After all, that mindset has worked just great for a big chunk of my life.
But there’s a whole lot of baggage that goes with seeing life in terms of exams.
You can pass or fail an exam. Those are the two outcomes. After the exam is done, nobody cares which questions you attempted, or what knowledge you’ve retained.
There’s a syllabus, a mark scheme, a set of grade boundaries. Even if I don’t know what the criteria are, someone does. Someone is holding up the ruler and measuring me with it. I need a teacher to look at my performance and pronounce the verdict.
All the information you need is out there somewhere, in your notes or in neatly presented textbook. Whatever you are asked in an exam, there is definitely a right answer to be found. Questions with no answers just don’t crop up.
But most roles in adult life, including being a Vicar, are full of messy, uncertain, complicated situations where you lack a great deal of control and have no possibility of ever having all the information you need. In those situtions an exam mentality is a recipe for madness.
When I spend time with those who are troubled, no-one will come and give me marks out of ten for my listening skills. I may never even know the outcome of the situation, and whether I helped or made it worse. No-one will give a grade for my Good Friday service. What works well can vary so much from place to place, according to so many factors – and I may never know how much I succeeded or failed at bringing the Easter Story alive for those who attended. (Is that why liturgy nerds get so tied up with getting the details “right” – it at least gives them a measure by which to judge their performance??) Numbers who attend an event or service are a tempting measure of success or failure, but again, not something I can necessarily influence that much. And the chase after “bums on seats” is a perversion of the real reasons I became a Vicar.
New initiatives become really scary, because it feels like taking a test, where I haven’t had chance to study the syllabus. Unprepared and guessing is not the way to take an exam.
And I become obsessed with needing a teacher-figure to admire my performance – and get really edgy around bishops, because they are the nearest equivalent I now have to a Head Teacher who will tell me I am a Credit to the School.
This way of approaching life that worked so well in the past is causing way more problems than it solves now. But I’m rather attached to it. It brought me so much praise and glory at first.
Is there a better way?
What if I were to abandon the exam mentality on life?
What if I were to approach things much more an experiment?
By definition, the outcome is uncertain in an experiment. That’s kind of the point, really, so not knowing how something will turn out is fine.
An experiment isn’t about pass and fail, it’s about learning and finding out. Doing something, seeing how it goes and learning from the results, rather than judging them. Trial and error is a key part of experimental method.
Method and process become much more important than results. How you decide and why becomes more important than what you actually do, and the outcome.
“I wonder what might happen if…?” rather than “Will I pass or fail?” is a much less anxious way of approaching the world. It’s an enquiring outlook to live with, based on curiosity rather than a Get High Marks, Have to be Top of the Class way of living.
Even better, what if I swapped the word Experiment for the word Exploration? After all, if you do experiments, you have to write them up under the correct headings, “Introduction, Equipment, Method, Results, Conclusions” and hand them in to your Chemistry teacher to be marked…. An exploration is fueled just as much by curiousity – but with fewer rules and teachers.
I think I might try living life as an exploration, rather than an exam. I wonder what might happen if I did that?
One of my ambitions at Primary School, before I discovered the joy of exams was to be an Explorer, charting new territory in jungles full of exotic creatures. I wonder if I could re-connect with that little girl who longed to explore?