It’s all practice

On quizzes and big exams

When I was in college, most of my grades were based on some combination of assignments, quizzes, and–heavily weighted–the mid-term and final exams. If I bombed a quiz, I wasn’t happy about it, but it wasn’t a major disaster. If I’d completely failed a final exam, though, it would have been a Big Deal.

In the years after college, I sat for the three levels of the CFA exams. Multiple months of focused study, a cost of $600 for a given exam, a six-hour proctored exam given only once* a year, driving up to Kansas City the night before to stay in a hotel close to the test center…for me, passing these exams qualified as a Big Deal.

The thing is, I didn’t actually sit for three CFA exams–I took somewhere between six and a dozen exams, across the three levels. Fortunately for my sanity, my work, and my marriage, most of these exams were “practice” exams–exams that I “proctored” for myself, that I graded myself, and that I used to figure out what areas I still needed to work on for a given level. By the time I sat for the “real” exam, I at least had a good idea of the “shape” of my knowledge, and a very general idea of how I might fare on the officially administered exam.

When I finally sat for a given level of the exam, failing it would not have been fun–but, if I’d failed and re-enrolled for the same level the next year, the first try would have given me both resources and lessons to help in the second round.

You see, life is practice. Very rarely is a “test” really a final exam. Losing a job, failing in business, damaging a relationship, missing a big opportunity–each is unpleasant, but each is recoverable

Galton boards and conscious navigators

I find it easy to think of life as though it’s a Galton board. You’ve probably seen one, though, like me, you might not have known what it was called. It’s a triangle of steel pins, where a marble dropped into the top of the triangle falls in a random sequence of “lefts” and “rights” on its way to the bottom of the board. And once a ball falls on the left side of a pin, a part of the right side of the board is forever closed off…and another leftward fall closes off more of the right forever. And there’s some truth in this. If you let yourself get addicted to drugs or alcohol, it’s really, really hard to move out of that section of the board.

Galton board
A Galton board

As like a Galton board as life may be, though, we aren’t falling marbles under gravity’s control. We can–through our own volition, and sometimes through others’ interventions, take unexpected paths through the maze. We can backtrack, take unexpected paths, sometimes even jump across gaps in the maze. We might be falling through Galton’s maze, and gravity and randomness can predict a lot about where we’ll end up–but they don’t necessarily get the final word. If I start with a couple of rightward choices, I could still end up at the far left of the board. Choices matter, but they’re usually much closer to quizzes than to final exams.

a Galton board with the ball taking unexpected paths
A conscious path

Practice well

Of course, your life will ultimately end, and it will be somewhere between “wonderfully lived” and “wasted”. But until the grades are turned in, it’s all practice.

Interesting reads

Feedback

Please let me know your thoughts. If you want to affirm or elaborate on what I’ve written, to express disagreement with it, or to help sharpen my writing or thinking, I’d love to hear from you.

Footnotes

* Actually, Level 1 of the CFA exam is given twice a year, in June and December; the subsequent levels are only in June.

Immunity to Change

…fully titled Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey.

Immunity to Change is like many of the “personal growth” books I’ve read: the big ideas of the book make it worth sorting through the fluff. Like a number of books of this kind, it spends a lot of time telling you about why the ideas are worthwhile. But, the many stories and examples do help to bridge from “head” to “heart”.

The big ideas of Immunity to Change are:

  • We have the ability to grow, increasing our ability to process complex situations, throughout our lives.
  • Our environment brings an increasing need to deal with complexity. The book looks at three levels of complexity, and intends to move its users to higher levels on the spectrum. The first is the socialized mind, who relies on others for direction. Next is the self-authoring mind, an independent person who  has a vision in mind, holds himself accountable to it, and recruits others to it. Finally comes the self-transforming mind, who uses the tools of the self-authoring mind but seeks to continually learn. He can hold competing ideas in his mind, and is aware that efficiently achieving the wrong vision is of no value. He learns from others, and is interdependent with them. He is able to look at some of the mindsets that he could previously only look through.
  • Some problems can’t be solved by technical learning, but must be approached adaptively. Most of us know how to lose weight (the technical solution): eat fewer calories and burn more of them. Many of us, though, need to adapt–to change who we are and how we think–in order to actually lose weight. We need different tools for adaptive solutions than for technical ones.
  • Most problems requiring adaptive solutions come from a mental “immune system”, which is protecting hidden goals. For example, you might sincerely want to lose weight, but your eating habits reflect that you just as sincerely want not to be perceived–by others or yourself–as “a health nut”.  Those commitments in turn are driven by assumptions, which you can test–and in so doing, possibly change the way you look at the world.
  • Part of the book’s value is in the processes it lays out–processes for engaging in adaptive change. It’s easy to say “yeah, I need to change the way I think about this”, but it’s hard to actually make such a change. Immunity to Change lays out a process for figuring out what your “competing commitments” and the assumptions beneath them are, and then for figuring out whether they’re valid.
  • Both individuals and groups can have “immunities to change”. The processes for figuring out immunities are similar, but looking at group immunities and assumptions does need its own process–which the authors describe separately.
Overall, I do recommend this book. It feels like it could be trimmed down quite a bit, but its core ideas of “immunity to change” and of developing mental complexity make it worth reading. The concrete steps for figuring out your own or your organization’s immunities to change, how they may be harming you, and how to change them if they are are invaluable. The book’s premises echo the ideas in Carol Dweck’s Mindset, and you’d likely find synergy in reading the two together. I also found A Sense of Urgency, by John Kotter, to be a synergistic read with this book (with a similar blend of “fluff” and substance). I hope to write about both books in the next while.
This post exceeds Godin’s minimal “paragraph a day” for the last few days. I really do want to write sustainably, so I’ll try to pace myself–i.e., it may be a few days before the next post.