R. Michael Anderson (entrepreneur and business author) came to our office yesterday to give a talk about his journey from programmer to leader. One of my key takeaways from his talk was the idea of exams vs. experiments. This idea is about understanding how we're taught as a child to avoid swimming in strange waters. It's about changing our inner narrative about failure and perfectionism.
The majority of us have been brought up in a school system that evaluates performance with exams. We get positive feedback from our teachers and parents when we ace a test. When we fail a test or score very low, things get uncomfortable. We face disappointment and the feeling of inadequacy.
We learn that it's really important that we do well in our exams, as in, we don't score low. We learn to avoid failure. And even though as professionals our performance is no longer evaluated with exams, we still treat some of our tasks and challenges as tests we need to pass with good grades.
If we are then given a choice between two tests, an easy one and a difficult one, which one do we choose? What if you get to choose between an easy test and no test? If you're like me, you will choose the no test option more often than you dare to admit. We've been taught to aim for the A's and avoid the F's. If the perfect score seems elusive, we turn to our secondary strategy of avoiding the test altogether.
The fact that we try to avoid failure is not by itself bad. Actually, it's a pretty good modus operandi. But we don't want this failure-avoiding behavior steer us away from difficult but meaningful work. We don't want us to choose to do nothing because of our fear of failure.
This is why Anderson suggests that we train our minds to treat our tasks and challenges as experimentations rather than exams. You fail an exam when you get an F. However, you fail an experimentation when your methods are flawed, or more importantly, when you don't even do the experiment.
Unintentionally, our schools also teach us that perfection is attainable. It is possible to get the perfect test score. However, as a creative, you know that perfect is the enemy of good. There are domains where the definition of perfect doesn't exist or perfection is almost impossible to reach given our inescapable constraints of time and money. It's the perfectionist in us who is afraid to take the first step in a world of ambiguity and challenges.
When you do experiments instead of exams, you start listening to your inner discoverer–not the perfectionist. Experimentations are about charting unknown territories. The goal is not to get the perfect score. Instead, the goal is to learn and do something meaningful.
Your new project, diet, or habit is not an exam, it's an experiment. There is no final grade. You fail if you don't try.