Life’s not a pass or fail.

Life’s not a pass or fail.



UPDATED:

Ditching the blackboard of life.

There are many things people grade themselves on and don’t realize this self assessment. The act of self-grading is a strange, common practice rooted in self-judgment and expectations indoctrinated over time, and in some ways, grading life can be a source of pride and contentment, driving more success — if you pass. 

The view of life as a series of lessons scrawled on a blackboard implies there are lessons and therefore grades to go with lessons. When viewed this way, the loss of a job or marriage ending becomes a life lesson. The blackboard of life philosophy purports to be a beneficial method of seeing life as learning experiences, and while many religious and spiritual persons claim value in this metaphor, the blackboard reveals a fatalistic* quality if you write on it long enough.

Actions and decisions earn grades, rarely receiving a C but instead a pass or fail followed by a review. “What did I learn from this mistake?” You might believe a little more grading variety helpful, such as assigning a C or B, and gleaning answers from mistakes seems wise, but this wisdom only works if the circumstance repeats or has structure, such as typing memos at work. Applying this thought process to relationships and aspirations causes fatalism to emerge.

Failing Upwards

Relationships, for many, are a series of failures, ultimately culminating into a lasting marriage. At least fifty percent of first marriages end in failure and second marriages have no more chance of success than the first. These ‘failed’ marriages are not inclusive of any relationships leading up to the marriage, so depending on your view of these lessons, the report card of relationships might start looking pretty bad.

Life’s not a pass or fail.

Photo by Henri Pham on Unsplash

Relationships are not the only lesson on the blackboard, with many goals also becoming a learning process subject to grading. Consider success as a lesson of life. What is success? If you ask fifty people, you get fifty mishmashed answers concerning money, work, family, and other life elements. If success is so subjective, then how can it possibly be graded?

Judging success likens to grading a desire for ice cream.

Becoming a manager becomes a success because you want to be a manager and became a manager. Having a family is a success because you want or like having a family and created a family. You are now a success having achieved these desires, but when something threatens them, such as divorce, death, the economy, or even just a bad boss, you are now a failure. Worse than a failure, you are a fatalist according to life's blackboard since you must now review the lesson and try to determine where you went wrong in the assumption that there is something to learn since there must be a lesson.

You now become a fatalist trapped staring at an endless blackboard filled with inevitable, unknown lessons.

Life's blackboard dictates learning occurs from a predetermined state because a lesson implies a correct course of action or thought that makes a successful marriage or career. Despite the fact that individuals often find themselves in relationships or jobs, having not planned for this eventuality, these same individuals consider themselves a failure when job loss or divorce occurs. They tell themselves they planned to get married or become a manager, generalizing their circumstance or relationship as if they specifically planned to meet and marry this person or be hired at this company when in fact they met the person either by accident or circumstantially or applied to the job as a possibility, perhaps one of many. Yet divorce and job loss makes them a failure, as though they followed some detailed plan for these events.

How can you be a failure if you followed no course of action or learning to achieve a goal?

In hindsight, people judge themselves as failures by assuming a lesson exists in contingent circumstances and goal achievement. A successful marriage depends on staying together forever. A successful career requires making X amount of dollars and ascending to a certain position. These underlying contingencies predetermine life on a winding road of grades, judged only on a retrospective chalkboard.

If someone hired you to do a job, placed you at a desk, and walked away, you would sit confused, trying to figure out what you needed to do. Suppose the boss returned each time you did something and said, “No, that’s not right.” He leaves and returns to declare each of your effort as right or wrong. Yes, you will learn the job, but how much time will you waste learning it. Worse yet, the boss comes to you on Friday and tells you, “I don’t think you’re the right fit for this job.” Any normal human being would see the lunacy of this approach, yet everyday people view life's chalkboard, grading the fortuitous and trying to learn from these so-called failures.

Consider for a moment the irrational nature of viewing a relationship with the permanence of staying together indefinitely, Reviewing past relationships as failures implies some form of right or wrong action in every situation that led to that failure. If you are always looking back to find failures, you are not looking at the current relationship, and because every person is unique, every relationship becomes a different situation having no bearing on the next except what you assume the blackboard is telling you. This thinking lends itself to forcing yourself to stay in an unhappy relationship or not finding contentment.

This should tell you much about a romantic interest who is jealous or mistrustful or clingy. 

In the same way you should focus on the relationship of the moment, you should perceive success in the same temporality. Perceiving success as a spouse, two kids, a house, and two cars makes one prone to failure since achieving these goals are contingent and impermanent. A divorce, a change in the economy, or anything that alters this success paradigm sends you to the blackboard, feeling failure. A twenty-five-year marriage ends, and the divorcees start reviewing the life lesson to avoid future failure, negating the twenty-five years spent in marriage. If the chalkboard of life worked, then people who get divorced should be able to review the lesson and remarry successfully. As stated, this is statistically untrue with second marriages having about the same percentage chance of success as the first. Likewise, things like the Great Depression and Great Recession reveal financial achievement as inconsistent and often unsustainable, causing upheavals in the success of the wife, two kids, a house, and two cars.

Too many external variables influence success and relationships to make a retrospective learning experience.   

Relationships are not lessons; they are “a romantic or sexual friendship between two people,” which may involve a desire to raise children, live together, get married, share finances, etc. Measuring relationship success based on expectations, such as staying together forever, and then grading every past involvement as a failure, detracts you from the current relationship. The more expectations you hold, the more difficult that success becomes and the greater the risk of failure. Underlying expectations form the fatalistic lesson plan counterproductive to the relationship since you are always qualifying and quantifying the present relationship with the future or the past on a blackboard that doesn't exist.

There is no lesson in personal goals or relationship achievement.

You likely have only a superficial knowledge of the expectations you place on your desires. Your expectations for a successful marriage might coincide with your partner but may not, and you won’t know this unless you discuss it candidly. This begs the question: how can you possibly discuss these expectations unless you are aware you have them in the first place? You can’t if you are constantly reviewing the blackboard in retrospect.

Like the idea of a relationship, success is not a lesson but a “favorable or desired outcome,” which might involve making large amounts of money, owning a car, or buying a house. Moreover, success is a subjective concept tied to expectations, and again, the more difficult the expectations, the more difficult success achievement and sustainability. What are your expectations of success? Are these realistic? Do they constitute success? Life's blackboard answers these questions only in hindsight which detracts from the unique elements of the present.

Life’s not a pass or fail.3

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Ditching the blackboard of life means adopting a proactive approach to achieving the things you want and need. The way to actualize this approach is to stop defining elements of life as success and failures. Romantic relationships are not a pass or fail, and if you want to have a good, lasting relationship, you and your partner need to concentrate on making that association work now. Your first act to achieve this end should be to root out the expectations you place on that relationship and discard the ones that conditionalize the relationship as a pass or fail. For instance, it is a fatalistic view to believe that your partner is supposed to make you successful, and not doing so is a failure of the relationship. Success is not something that can be distilled into a single person or small collection of life’s elements and depends tremendously on your interpretation of success. Furthermore, grading success as a pass or fail runs counter to a good relationship because you conditionalize the person as an object of success rather than part of the relationship. Worse yet, viewing relationships in terms of success creates two failures if the relationship fails since you now have linked your view of a successful life with the relationship.

The view of life as a lesson plan isolates not to relationships and success. Viewing friends, happiness, career, and many other facets of living as “pass” or “fails” can cost you tremendous time and emotional expense. Honestly questioning motives and expectations can reveal a lot but catching and ceasing self-grading of life is the crucial first step. The more proactively you approach life, the more you recognize this fatalistic flaw in others and avoid subjecting yourself to life's blackboard.

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*Fatalism: “a doctrine that events are fixed in advance so that human beings are powerless to change them.”

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