August 21, 2009

Life is an the Ultimate Open Book Exam

In most schools, students are evaluated as individuals and graded on a curve relative to their classmates. In short, when they win someone else loses. Not only is this stressful, but it isn’t how most organizations work in the real world. Outside of school, people usually work on a team with a shared goal, and when they win so does everyone else. In fact, in the business world there are usually small teams embedded inside larger teams, and at every level the goal is to make everyone successful.

The typical classroom also has a teacher who views his or her job as pouring information into the students’ brains. The door to the room is closed and the chairs are bolted to the floor, facing the teacher. Students take careful notes, knowing they will be tested on the material later. For homework they are asked to read assigned material from a textbook and quietly absorb it on their own. This couldn’t be any more different from life after college, where you are your own teacher, charged with figuring out what you need to know, where to find the information, and how to absorb it. In fact, real life is the ultimate open book exam. The doors are thrown wide open, allowing you to draw on endless resources around you as you tackle open-ended problems related to work, family, friends, and the world at large. Carlos Vignolo, a masterful professor at the University of Chile, told me that he provocatively suggests that students take classes from the worst teachers in their school because this will prepare them for life, where they won’t have talented educators leading the way.

Additionally, in large classes, students are typically given multiple-choice tests with one right answer for every question, and the bubbles must be carefully filled in with number two pencils to make for easy grading. In sharp contrast, in most situations outside of school there are a multitude of answers to every question, many of which are correct in some way. And, even more important, it is acceptable to fail. In fact, failure is an important part of life’s learning process. Just as evolution is a series of trial-and-error experiments, life is full of false starts and inevitable stumbling. The key to success is the ability to extract the lessons out of each of these experiences and to move on with that new knowledge.

For most people, the world is quite different than a typical classroom. There isn’t one right answer that leads to a clear reward, and facing the wall of choices in front of each of us can be quite overwhelming. Although family, friends, and neighbors will happily give us pointed advice about what to do, it is essentially our responsibility to pick our own direction. But it is helpful to know that we don’t have to be right the first time. Life beyond school presents each of us with many opportunities to experiment and recombine our skills and passions in new and surprising ways.