Not always at the top of the conversation list, it’s something that happens to all of us. This week, i stumbled and fell – a little unexpectedly – and my reaction was also a bit unexpected.
i am required to complete a 13 month professional development course. It has been required for several years, but most of us played the waiting game – hoping the requirement would vaporize with changes in the front office. But alas, we could wait no longer as strong arm tactics were deployed. Small children would be maimed, puppies would be stomped and (shudder) blackberries demolished if we failed to comply.
Completion involves three courses, plus a research article. Computer-based testing is done in a communal center. Options for the course are either independent study or through a “seminar” – equally miserable conscripts become study-mates for weekly sessions, providing a bit more tension in the system to finish the damn thing.
With my tendency to procrastinate, i knew i had to join a seminar group – and fortunately, joined a good one. Fearless Leader, a friend and colleague, devised a scheme where we could push aggressively and complete the entire thing in about 9 months – before Thanksgiving. Notebooks and highlighters in hand, noses plugged, upper lips stiffened – off we charged!
Pounding our way through the first course over the past five weeks, it was time for our first test. The tests are notoriously squishy – multiple choice questions where you can narrow it down to two reasonable answers, but ultimately have to take your best guess. I’ve always tested well*, have good verbal skills, and felt i was prepared, having devoted an assload of time to my studies.
You guessed it – i only knew about 14 answers of 25 for sure, leaving 11 “educated guesses”. Reviewing my answers, i changed about 5 of them from my initial gut response.
And i failed. Scoring a 68%, with 70% required for passing. i will have one more try before being ejected from the program.**
Leaving the test center – a room with about 30 computers, still full of people furiously clicking through their own circles of examination hell – i escaped quietly, snagged my test results from the printer and slunk toward the door. The administrator at the center kindly told me that many people fail the tests on the first try. Kind of her to say so…
Collecting my thoughts for a moment in the car, i immediately decided that i would lie. How could i tell my seminar-mates that i’d failed? One of our colleagues had taken the test earlier. He’d gotten an 84%. So i knew it was possible to pass the test – i couldn’t admit to being a failure.
Driving back to my office, i pondered the idea of lying, quietly re-taking the test… and i realized that i couldn’t cover this up. Public humiliation was in my future. i was going to have to suck it up.
Sitting through the morning meeting, my thoughts wandered. Going back to the day The Girl failed the maneuverability portion of her drivers test, she was inconsolable. i remember her saying “Mom, i’ve never failed at anything i’ve tried to do before!”… and those words resonated with me.
Similar feelings for me that morning. Not that i’m a genius, but i’ve been pretty good at sorting out just the right level of effort required to get me from Point A to Point B. i am simply not used to fucking something up, and it felt awful.
Then i remembered the words i laid upon her. Words from my Dad. “The measure of a man isn’t how he deals with success – it’s how he deals with failure. Anyone can deal with success. Failure tells you who he really is.”
Back in the office, i tracked down Fearless Leader to tell him i’d failed. He was genuinely shocked, but then said “I just saw K, and he failed it too”. What? K? He’s a certified fucking genius! Fearless Leader said he was pretty shaken up. Racing upstairs to catch him in his office, i realized he must be in the same kind of hell. i sat down and said those magic words – “i failed”.
Tangible waves of relief flooded through both of us. Like me, he was in shock. Unlike me – having a higher degree of integrity – he never considered lying. This is a man who got 100% on the Graduate Record Exam. Man, did i feel better…
So we’ll regroup, review, re-test and get it behind us. But a powerful lesson in the value of talking about failure. We also sent a note to another seminar-mate who is scheduled to test next week – call sign is “KDCM”, for “Knuckle Dragging Caveman”*** – to let him know we fucked up and recommend that he trust his instincts.
Whether it’s professional or personal, understanding, exploring and learning from our failures is a worthwhile excursion. What’s a little public humiliation among friends?
* In high school, i took the pre-Scholastic Aptitude Test with a massive hangover after 4 hours sleep, and still scored well enough to be a national merit scholar. i’m simply adept with a scantron form… it’s all about the patterns.
** In theory, this would be a good thing. In practice, it could lead to professional pain and suffering. Rumors about of people who are being squeezed due to failure to enroll/complete the training…
*** KDCM is responsible for sending me to the emergency room a few years ago – i was detailed to a supervisory position, and he was detailed to the position above me. And during our week-long personnel evaluation session, my efforts to refrain from beating him to death with a laptop caused my heart to misfire. He is dumber than a box of hair. Working for a caveman? Not nearly as much fun as those Geico commercials might imply… Worst case scenario? He passes with a 90% on the first try…