Monday, 2 February 2015

Real life isn't about grades, it's about passing or failing.

I had a bit of a realisation today. It was sort of inspired by a discussion in an online parenting group about always wanting "that A+" in parenting, and coming to terms with the fact that it's not really possible or desirable.

Something that really resonates with me - and I suspect, a lot of people who did well at school but then struggle with adult life, is this feeling that the top grade should be within reach all the time, and a sort of constant bewilderment that it is not. I am not the only person who I have spoken to who has experienced this, but it's like when you are top of the class of your very small school, and then you go to university and here are lots of people who are top of various classes, and somehow now you are just average. It's a strange feeling, humbling. Hopefully, of course, most people go on with this experience, find their place in the world and understand that it's just the way that things are.

When it doesn't really work is when you are going about your everyday life and still trying to get a top grade on things where grading really, honestly, is never going to matter. For the absolute vast majority of things you encounter in adult life, in fact I would argue ALL of them, aside from education, and not even all of that relies on grades, for all of those the imagined "grade" that you get in that area is absolutely meaningless. What matters is pass or fail. That's it. Everyday tasks, individual interactions, pass or fail. Nobody cares if you put your absolute all into something and made it perfect, or barely scraped by. Nobody is going to notice if you have made a personal improvement in something, unless it passes from fail into pass territory. If a pass is a C and anything lower is a fail, it doesn't matter if you get a C- or an E or an F. Same thing. C+ and A+, same result. Pass. Fail. Of course somebody might notice once in a while if you really go all out and pull off an A+ type of manoeuvre, but most of the time they won't, and most of the time it won't make any difference anyway.

So perhaps it helps to give some real life examples. Take arriving somewhere on time. You are either on time or you're not; it's still going to piss people off to be left waiting for ten minutes as for thirty. It's a pass/fail. Parenting, discipline issues for example. Look at the outcome - did you manage to communicate the message that this is not an appropriate or acceptable way to act? It doesn't much matter whether you used the super duper fantastic perfect parent way, or the lazy way, as long as the end result is the same: Was this information about behaviour communicated to your child? If yes, pass. If no, fail. Of course, if you get really mad you could pass this one while failing another (Am I keeping my children safe from harm, as far as is practical? or Am I modelling healthy ways of dealing with strong emotions? for example.)

But anyway, I found this realisation both freeing and depressing, in some ways. Hard because it means that except to people very close to you and perhaps yourself, those small steps don't really mean anything at all. They might bring you closer to passing at something, but they are not of worth in themselves to the vast majority of people that you are going to interact with. That's sort of okay, though, it just means don't look for validation for them. Past school age, it ain't gonna happen. Secondly, stop spending time and effort making everything perfect unless it actually brings you significant joy to do so. Passing is what counts. Make it pass, move on to the next thing. Save that energy for the things you don't pass at so easily.

Lastly it's that failure isn't the end of the world. When it's black and white like that, you're not on a treadmill which seems to be getting faster every time you feel like you're getting into the swing. There is no such thing as tiny improvements, there only is, or there is not. When you fail at something (and you will, so get used to that, and don't angst over it. Did I make the point already that real life bears absolutely no resemblance to school?) you should think "Huh, that didn't work so well." work out what stood in the way of it working, whether it was external factors (can you build in anything to mitigate them?) or your own weaknesses (so you build those up, no big deal) or a simple oversight. You won't ever get to a point where you never ever fail at anything, but you can be a lot more successful in general, and a lot less self-punishing if you can look at failures as learning/improvement experiences rather than some kind of proof of your own incompetence.

So that brings my Secrets of Adulthood to 2. I'm going to add a section on my about page.

1. Groceries (and other supplies) can also get used up by other people that you live with.
2. Real life isn't about grades. Most things are a pass/fail kind of deal.