When you get back your exam scripts, do you focus on the questions you got right or the questions you got wrong? When I was a teacher, I often reminded my students that those scripts were more valuable for the way they show you how you had gone wrong rather than places where you got things correct. And in fact, those lessons were probably the whole point of sitting for the exam – more important than the grades themselves. Grades do not show whether you are good or bad but merely reflects your progress in the attempts to master the materials you were provided.
The issue with life after graduation is that it is so different from exams. To begin, your score in exams is capped at 100 whereas in life, your upside is really infinite. Now that means that unlike in exams where you could hone in on your mistakes and try to deal mainly with the weak points, life cannot be managed by exceptions or by focusing on weak points. You’d end up trying to perfect areas or dimensions that do not matter at all. Because unlike examinations, you are no longer trying to complete all the questions. You are now looking for questions worth answering amongst infinite questions. It looks more like an examination where there’s endless questions you can choose to answer and you’re trying to get to correct answers for the questions you do attempt.
So then the strategy now can be to just pick the easy questions, those that you have a high confidence of being right. Or to start devoting yourself to being really good at a particular cluster or set of questions around the same topics or ideas. And you want to get away from questions that you don’t stand a chance at unless you happen to be really interested and think you have a shot in developing the ability to answer them. Notice these approaches are radically different from what we learn in school. But once you are able to see life this way, you start recognising you need a different approach from what you were brought up with.
There are certainly some positive self-fulfilling prophecies in life, and they represent positive cycles in life that we can do more to encourage and harness. Students who have teachers believing in them tend to end up doing better than if they were left on their own; encouragement matters, and more importantly, the social dimension of love and nurturing has an impact on the learning outcomes of students. That is an input for teachers beyond pedagogy, but are we training teachers to believe in their students?
The industrial system works best when we can identify success factors and then invest in them to keep those positive feedback loops in the system. The tricky part is how the industrial system seeks to interact with that ‘scientific management’ koolaid about measurability and creating metrics and indicators. As a result, some of those success factors that are strictly unmeasurable get left out. After all, how do you make sure that a teacher can ‘believe’ in the students evenly in the class? But that question, which is precisely what standardisation and industrialism are based upon, misses the point.
Some of these unmeasurable success factors can generate power feedback loops. Consider the culture of graciousness in a workplace, gentleness, kindness, patience. Just because we cannot correlate the attributes with outcomes doesn’t mean they do not exist. And we all are worse off because we have allowed measurability and ‘big data’ to take such a dominant position in our systems.
If you’re so near to success but then at the last point it failed, what does it mean about your effort and all the time spent on it? It can be for a business, a project, a single deal, or even a relationship. If you had known, would you have gone for it anyways? Or maybe that’s not a fair question to ask; the better question is how you’d value all the progress up to that point. Before the failure.
Would you just walk away and try to forget? Or simmer in anger? Or start gathering the pieces and see what they can be used for next?
I think the last point is particularly interesting because news just came out that Suncable entered into voluntary administration due to the shareholders not being aligned. It was a big and ambitious project. There are people concerned with Singapore not getting enough green electricity. But even if Suncable really failed, there had been expertise built up, teams familiar with the system and processes, plans or ideas that can be refashioned.
Better to think that what brought you close to success but did not get you there has already brought you closer to other successes you’ve yet to see.