I must have been somewhere between 12 and 16. It’s quite a big gap, but my parents’ motivational techniques and their commitment to my academic success changed little within this time. I came home one afternoon clutching an ominous, mint green piece of card on which was printed my mid-term exam results.
A column of subjects, next to it the ‘average class percentage’ followed by ‘student score.’ As if results weren’t difficult enough to swallow, my elite institution made it a point to compare every individual’s level of intelligence with everyone else in the year. This ruined my methods of self preservation. Any chance I had of convincing my parents that 60% was a perfectly respectable score because the paper was really tough and nobody got more than 65%, was thwarted. On this occasion, I was particularly proud of my history exam score of 89%. An A!
I was naive to think my parents would be as excitable as me. ‘What happened to the other 11%?’ was the response. I could but sigh then. Now I understand the conditioning behind the words.
We are obsessed with measuring, quantifying, changing and improving absolutely everything (eyebrows, houses, intelligence, profit margins). At work we keep part of our waning attention on a plethora of metrics and what’s left is spent clock-watching. We quantify abstract concepts with infinite variables like ‘employee effort’ or ‘efficiency’ without realising that it’s like trying to measure ‘how good a tomato is at being a tomato.’ It’s nonsensical, subjective and of little real value to anyone. Surely the tomato, if it looks and tastes like a tomato, is sufficiently tomato-esque?
The truth of this has been known to us for millenia. It’s our attempt at ‘exercising’ control. The assumption is that if we can measure, we can predict. If we can predict, we can curb or redirect or ‘take action,’ usher fate to our side; or manipulate the universe so we shall suffer no ill will (financial or otherwise). When things go as we want we decide our strategies have been ‘successful.’ When they don’t we commence ritual self flagellation or haul each other into meetings to ‘realign’ our route to ‘perfection.’ What we fail to realise is that the outcome was never really in our control to begin with.
As a result of our blind adherence to this idea we have created a world where everything has to be made ‘better’ (or it’s worth nothing) and so rapidly that nothing ever really has a chance to work. We must make things more efficient, more cost effective, streamline this and review that, ‘roll out’ (what does that even mean?) our new strategies and ‘synergise’ something or other. So much so that we’ve substituted who we are and what we’re good at with the pretense of contribution.
If we are to save ourselves the pain and pressure of constant improvement, we must accept the following universal truth: The Universe is Chaos. The Taoist solution describes living within this chaos as ‘the art of sailing.’ Wasting effort trying to redirect the tumult of the current is pointless, but using a rudder to steer means you have the entire force of the river behind you – you’ll glide through life with ease, grace and minimal stress.
Of course I am not suggesting that we all sit around doing nothing (that would herald the return of the resident couch potato, and nobody wants that). What I am suggesting is that there is a stark difference between doing and doing. Doing (often accompanied by a sense of timelessness) is to do what you enjoy, what is fulfilling or necessary.
A number of years later, I have come to the following conclusions:
- Perfection is an idea that exists within the mind and I control that
- Perfection does not exist but mastery does (aim for the latter)
- Just because it’s new it doesn’t mean it’s better (be critical about what you spend your time improving, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it)
So, what happened to the 11%? Absolutely nothing. It never existed, because I was always only ever going to get 89% on that exam. I was not going to waste my time clutching at what could have been, trying to redirect the current of the river. Instead, I sailed on wards, not always smoothly, but sailing nonetheless.
As Alan Watts said: ‘...the meaning of being alive is just being alive…I look at the colour of your hair and the shape of your eyebrow, and I understand that that is the point. That’s what we’re all here for…We see everyone rushing around in a great panic, as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond all that.’ Let go and be yourself.
By Anup K.M. Jheeta