The midnight vigils at his study table, the massive amounts of textbooks and reference booklets borrowed and borrowed again, the expenditure of liters’ worth of ink on past years and practice sheets—all came to mind as he joined the crowd in front of the notice board. He can no longer remember the last time he watched a movie. The dank musty smell of the college library has been such a staple in life that he suspects the smell has stuck on him. And he now watches, his eyes scanning the tiny A4 sheet, to see if it has paid off. His eyes move down the results sheet. He misses his name and ID number at first. Then he comes back to read them again, and a dull blow hits his gut.
Every student knows the capricious nature of failure. No matter how much you study, or how much you deny yourself—on occasion, you taste the bitterness of falling short of your mark. It’s not fair, and most would agree. We invent ways to explain it away. We speak of ways we could have done better, of areas of improvement. Our previous test papers become fetishes as we catalogue every mistake and make corrections, convincing ourselves that we won’t make the same mistake twice. We throw around lots of words, words like examination pressure, panic, and stress levels. The paper is tough, the questions unfamiliar. Was it bad preparation? Too much stress? Perhaps it was bad sleep quality, or too much coffee or tea. Maybe eating red meat diverts blood from your brain, and you just had a large meal before the examination.
In effect, what we are saying is that effort and preparation are only a small slice of the picture. We are actually talking about how little is within our control.
Sometimes, past excellence or success work to our detriment. We all have seen excellent top students who break down during the final examination and score thirty marks lower than their usual average. We have seen expert basketball players being chosen to take the winning shot and suddenly commit an amateur mistake.
In this case, stereotyping may be to blame. A paper published jointly by Claude M. Steele of Stanford University and Joshua Aronson of the University of Texas deals with the differences between the performances of a group of whites and African Americans when given a standardized test. When the test was presented as a research tool and nothing more, there was little significant difference in performance between the two racial groups. However, when the test was introduced as a way to measure intelligence, the African American students performed worse than their white peers. The added pressure of confronting a racial stereotype (on their intelligence), according to the researchers, caused the black students’ performances to suffer. Steele and Aronson called this the ‘stereotype threat.’
We in Malaysia may or may not come up against this racial stereotype threat, depending on who you ask. But the one stereotype prevalent everywhere is that of the ‘good student.’ I know of friends who performed well in a few class tests and were instantly elected ‘experts’ in their studies, and the rest of us would bring our homework or exam questions to them for help. We have cast a stereotype on students like these. A friend of mine confided in me that he felt sick every time he had to enter the exam hall, knowing full well that a high score was expected of him; that friends would smile and say ‘congratulations’ to him before even asking about his results; that his anxieties and struggles were disregarded because of his reputation. Every time he sits for an exam, he remembers all of this. He begins to second guess himself, reading and re-reading each sentence in the test paper. He writes his answer, crosses it out, writes a new one, and crosses that out too. His feet are pressed together and his hands are slick with sweat. Small wonder that students like him sometimes crack under pressure.
One of my favourite authors, Malcolm Gladwell, wrote about failure extensively in his essay ‘The Art of Failure.’ He describes two different ways that we can fail. (Excellent. Now I can fail in different styles.) They are to choke and to panic.
A good way to fail is to choke. Choking happens when under pressure, we suddenly lose the instincts gained from previous experience, and revert to a beginner state of mind. Like a centipede starting to wonder about how it can walk, we start to consciously think about every step we are taking. A champion tennis player can be leading 4-1 and serving at 40-30, and suddenly under the glare of the lights and the cheers of the spectators, she breaks down. Her footwork becomes uneven, her racquet pauses mid-swing in hesitation. She breaks down as all her hours of training and experience fly out of the window and suddenly she becomes a beginner again, stumbling through each step and each serve slowly and hesitantly, like a little girl learning to play tennis for the first time. Gladwell, in fact, quotes Jana Novotna’s loss to Steffi Graf in the 1993 Wimbledon final as an example of this.
Panicking, on the other hand, happens when rational thought flies out of the window and the reptile brain takes over. We become driven by pure instinct, forgetting every rule we have learnt and method we have memorized. While learning how to drive, I once took the car out onto a nearby road with my mother in the passenger seat. Suddenly, a massive SUV roared past our tiny MyVi on the left side. Instinctively, I swung the steering wheel to the right, forgetting that both the SUV and our car were well within our respective lanes, forgetting that such a move was extremely dangerous. Whatever knowledge I had about driving, whatever rules I had memorized, all disappeared in that one instinctive knee-jerk reaction to avoid the SUV.
Gladwell quotes a different, fatal example of panicking, of the incident in July 1999 when John F. Kennedy Jr. took off into the night sky in a Piper Saratoga light aircraft. He was headed for Martha’s Vineyard, and searched for the lights around the area so he could land his plane. He could see no lights. He panicked. He flew on, making desperate changes in direction, straining his eyes for the lights. With his eyes away from the gyroscope and altimeter, he was unaware that the subtle bank of the Piper’s wings was pulling the plane into a death spiral that became tighter and tighter with each maneuver he made. He was still searching for Martha’s Vineyard when the Piper smashed into the ocean at 9.41pm.
For a student, panicking is when we forget our entire year’s worth of knowledge and ‘blank out’ when we read the first page of our test paper. Choking is when the fluid progression from step to step in answering a question turns into a clumsy sporadic jumble of writing answers and crossing them out. On opposite extremes, choking and panicking are the Scylla and Charybdis of our struggle to do well. Gladwell sums it up best. ‘Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart.’
Students face a gauntlet of difficulties. With noses rubbed raw against the grindstone, with endless hours of studying, we now face the pressures imposed on ourselves and the very real threat of cracking down under pressure. And even if we somehow get conditions right, circumventing the twin sisters of choking and panicking, life sometimes just delivers us a wild card. Perhaps some of us who are otherwise healthy wake up on the day of the exam running a fever of 40 degrees Celsius. Maybe a small accident ten minutes before the exam upsets our composure and affects our performance. Sometimes, something really catastrophic happens out of nowhere. My mother once spoke of her university days when every year at the final examination, without fail, one or two girls would suddenly erupt into screaming hysteria. The girls who do so change almost every year, with no prior indication of such an outburst. The only thing predictable about the phenomenon was its unpredictability.
With so many odds stacked against us, so many factors beyond our control, failure seems almost inevitable for the average student. To a certain extent, yes, working hard, taking good care of one’s health and maintaining a positive attitude are vital criteria for success, and your chances of getting high grades are good if you have been getting high grades for past exams. But a chicken being fattened up every day has no way of knowing which day he finally meets the butcher’s knife, nor does a stock trader making a killing day after day know which week lightning will strike and destroy his fortune. To base your future, or your self worth, on how often you succeed, is to build your house on shaky ground. We often think of examinations, or competitions, or life in general, as a game of chess, with set rules and strategies and a clear way to win. If you are good at planning, if you can obey the rules and play the game well, then you win. Yet we find too often that life and its trials resemble anything but a game. The chessboard has extra squares, some pieces are missing, and sometimes every move you make is a checkmate for you. We think of exams as a game even though we don’t know all of the rules, or maybe even whether there are any rules. Should you even be taking its ‘fairness’ for granted? Nassim Taleb, the author of The Black Swan, calls this the ‘ludic fallacy,’ from the Latin word ludus, or ‘game.’
If there is any moral at all from this, it is that no one is immune to failure. True enough, success is vital to advancing in life. Even if we may have a chance of failing, that is by no means an excuse not to try. Giving our best, putting in our utmost effort, is in itself an act of defiance against the possibility of failure, an acknowledgement that we may fail trying but will try nonetheless. Yet fail we must, and at the end of it all the reasons for failure, however unfair, are immaterial. Our hands, no matter how skilled, are made of flesh and flesh will fail from time to time. To accept this fact is to gain a degree of humility, and an understanding that oftentimes the outcome of your effort is dependent on God. At the end of it all, what is sure is that success is not final, failure is not fatal, and it is the will to continue trying that counts. Perhaps if life is really a game, this is the one rule we can be sure of: that you can always, always play another round.
Benjamin is currently learning three Indian languages at the same time, as part of his preparatory course to study medicine in India. This is going to be hilarious.