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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Scoring 94: Scoring Pressure or Outcome Bias?

Precisely a fortnight ago, the HSC board examinations (at least for me) concluded. It was an exhausting attempt, not because the syllabus was anything close to difficult, but because I faced a dilemma.

On one hand, was an extremely uninspiring curriculum- standardized and watered down to the extent of being nothing close to inspiring. The textbooks are printed in a haywire manner, the material is mediocre, and the concepts are explained in an extremely unpardonable, colloquial manner. On the other hand though, here I was, (to put it humbly but in a straightforward way) a perfectionist with a high need to achieve the best possible performance, and too an extent, a decent result…to put it accurately, a result somewhere close to, possibly more than the standards I had set up for myself (having been a consistent 90+ scorer).

This dilemma comes closest to the following analogy: Mom asks me to dust a cabinet on a day, when I am particularly moody. Although I don’t want to do it in the first place, I shall take every possible effort to wipe every speck out of the cabinet (note how she asked me to “dust” and I, almost instinctively and automatically, turned it to“wiped”! ;)

This dilemma went through several stages.

First, I almost completely lost (or convinced myself so) that I do not want to perform well, that I lack the drive to score or perform well. What is the significance of doing something exceptionally well when you don’t completely enjoy it? This ‘drive’ or ‘adrenaline’ that often empowered me before exams to gear up for an awesome performance was missing, probably. I don’t want to perform well. I would tell myself.

This first stage also had me deliberating at the same time that I ‘have’ to perform well.  

As the exams drew nearer, the second stage came in, and this was probably the most important one, the core of this article. I realised that I was not (or convinced myself so) well-prepared. Some introspection revealed that I had studied hard no doubt, but I was not as well-prepared as I was during my tenth board exams. I am a strong advocate of being completely relaxed and completely prepared before any exam…I had been so for the tenth boards at least. On none of those tenth board exam days had I studied on the last day morning or stayed up late in the night, or woken up early to study. In fact, three days before the boards commenced, I shot for a video on our channel and did the same in the middle of two papers, on one occasion. I made that (relaxed but prepared attitude) an idle for giving exams.

I was, in this stage, making a direct comparison between my tenth and twelfth board exam preparation. On hindsight, I also understand I was making the comparison based on this mental argument:

Since I prepared in so-and-so manner for the tenth, hence I scored well.

If I am to score well in the twelfth, I must mimic the exact same pattern in which I prepared for tenth.

I don’t know how many others felt the same while giving the boards but I did, and here is my analysis of the two stages I went through:

The two stages are absolutely linked and the same; basically, comparing my preparation for 10th, and expecting (making it a compulsion) for myself to repeat the same preparation for 12th. This, as I read a day ago, in Daniel Kahneman’s "Thinking-Fast and Slow", is the outcome bias- the belief that if an outcome that occured in the past is favorable, the process (and all associated factors) too was a good or efficient one.

This is a flawed belief, which was causing me misery then, and I understand only now. The fact that a good outcome (93.6%!) came following a process (relaxed and fun preparation), does not necessarily mean it was solely a result of that process. This irrational conclusion was giving me undue anxiety, and I would, on an occasion too many, expect my performance to be similar, because I wanted a similar performance and result.

Also, part of the cause of the misery was the compulsion I had (kind of) put on myself to perform competently under any, every and all condition/s. Not just on the result, mainly on the performance (the obsession to know the answer to every question that shows up). I was, as Albert Ellis would call it MUSTurbating. Expecting myself to absolutely be competent (I must do well), if I am to consider myself worth any good.

Several what ifs- did relieve me a great deal of anxiety. What if I don’t know the answer to a question? What if I did not do well on a paper? What if I did not top? What if I was not prepared as well as I used to be in the past for other papers? 

Answer: Maybe, it would disappoint me, but I could live with it. I am definitely not leveraging my entire self on one parameter. And that, brings me to the third, rather cliche phase I went through…Anxiety.

But anxiety that was tough to spell. It is difficult to describe what exactly I was feeling, a mix of a lot many emotions combined…performance anxiety, expectations from others, (lot was an exaggeration, I guess these were the only feelings!) Here, a concept I had heard during an online course, on public speaking would have come in handy (I applied it, albeit a little late). This is a brief explanation of this concept: anxiety and excitement- are nothing but attributions, that is causes we give to any thing or situation. And the bodily changes like a racing heart or breath rate, sweating, nervousness in the limbs are not necessarily signs of either anxiety or excitement, but associated to both. Why? Because when we feel these bodily changes, we assign a cause to them. We either tell ourselves that it is anxiety or excitement depending on the factors present in the situation at hand…and that is what we believe. So I did convince myself that the beating heart and paced-up breathing, nervousness in the limbs represented my body readying itself for the paper; pumped up, not nervous! And the sweating, of course, to the Mumbai heat.

Nevertheless, there was one predominant emotion troubling me and those were my own expectations from myself. If I were comparing myself to a friend, my rational side would anyways say, “Who anyways is he/she?” If I were laying my standards set up by anyone else, teachers, my college, what people, friends, in general expected from me, it would be easy for me to say, “Who are they anyway?

But this was me I was pitted against. I wasn't able to ask myself this question…not until I sat for the first paper in the examination hall and the invigilator told me plainly, “Please leave your ID card outside.” 

But I don’t have a bag.” 

Leave it on my table then.” I did. 

Couple of moments later, she looked at me, and asked, “Do you have your phone with you, if it is not in a bag?” 

No, I haven't it.

The invigilator doubted if I was going to break a rule. Me? Break a rule? How's it possible?

When you make a mental image of yourself, and most others knowing you are aware of it, you almost take it for granted. You assume a stranger, an invigilator, who is anyways doing her job, and who has no inkling who you are, will know you have never cheated since grade one! As this insight began entering my mind, the question paper also came onto my hands. The first passage read as follows, so much in similarity to my newly-found insight, almost welling up tears in eyes that have never watered in public before:

Prominent among the urges that inspire and drive a person in life, is the urge to be a somebody. It is quite human, especially in the early stages of life, to want to do something to win laurels and admiration of all around. There''s a pitfall though a" the very process of becoming a somebody may subtly reduce you to a nobody.

That gave me the courage to ask myself, Who am I anyways? Who knows that I ever scored a 93.6%? who knows I have a knack of relaxed perfectionist preparation? The invigilator doesn't know me, neither does the examiner, I am a nobody when I face them or when my paper falls in their hands. The examiner expects from me an average performance (like the invigilator expected an average teenage guy to bring along his phone in the center)? I am sure to give him/her far more than an average? Then what am I miserable about?

With that surging spirit and insight, I began writing the paper, and amazingly enjoyed the experience of all of those 18 hours, of writing those 6 papers.

I have been on stage so I know…Preparation is one thing, results are another, anxiety and expectations are involved in both and they are a healthy mix there. The only place you must not let them in is Performance. When you are on the stage, the space is yours…Hey Now! You’re a rockstar, get your game on, go play! “(which by the way was my motivational prelude to every exam)

You have gone through exams at least once, and over at at least two of these feelings if not more. Which of these and how did you deal with it? Comment below. 

 -Shahen Pardiwala

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

My 3-E Mantra

How Do You Ignore E? 

“I command you to look cautiously at what is in front of you. It is a pity that I took six minutes, along with a painstaking synonym hunt to put forth a string of only about fifty words and still could not avoid using an alphabet that is most commonly put into application.”

Up there, I tried doing what Ernest Vincent Wright did in his 1939 novel, “Gadsby”: write without using the most commonly used letter in the English Alphabet: letter E. It took him a great deal of hard work to avoid ‘E’ (4 months plus the E key on the typewriter tied down) and he still ended up with a review saying, “at least part of Wright’s narrative issues were caused by language limitations imposed by the lack of E.”

P.S.- I breath a sigh of relief at this time after writing one whole paragraph with beloved E, especially after the arduous task of ignoring it in my opening paragraph. It feels exhilarating. E does serve a purpose too many for a writer, a blogger, like me!

However, it turns out there is more to E than the alphabet E (that keeps the writer’s pen moving). For one, we can most definitely consider Vitamin E (that keeps the being moving). For me, Vitamin E means more than the literal, and here are three levels of the being where I recommend my versions of Vitamin E: the personal mental level, the social level and at the health level.

For the mind, Vitamin E, is Enthusiasm! Enthusiasm is that state of the mind that can pull your body through the most mundane situations. Enthusiasm is what pumps me! A lack of it exhausts me even when the task is a trifle of work. Think about all the chores you did today. What was the distinguishing factor between those, whose memory makes you smile and those, whose memory makes you sigh? For sure, the existence of Vitamin Enthusiasm in the former and a deficiency of it in the latter. Filling the boring tasks with anything exciting- anything that fills one with exhilarating energy to do it, is the key to get those boring tasks done. Or better still- just drop things that do not enthuse you because as Charles Bukowski once said,

Unless the sun inside you is burning your gut, don’t do it!”

Next, for the social level, Vitamin E, is Emotional Intelligence! Too big to fill isn’t it? Perhaps! But absolutely worth it, when you know what are your needs and goals for your social world. Emotional Intelligence goes a long way, because firstly, one learns to understand emotions- of the self, and those of others along with taking full responsibility of them. Second, and this one I so much wish be ingrained in angry commuters in local trains- emotional arousal and impulse control. Sometimes, we just lose it - so to say! And while it does seem to do some temporary good by releasing pent up emotions, it is highly detrimental to those at the receiving end. In most situations then, it doesn’t matter any more how much one seems to be right and intelligent after failing in the task of disallowing emotions to completely override sanity.  

But at the end of the day, when I do have the first two equipped with me, why would I do away with the third and a pretty significant level at which Vitamin E operates- the health level? But what makes Vitamin E a go-to substance for good health? Firstly, its a proven antioxidant. It reduces the deterioration and visible signs of aging, prevents cancer, strokes, cataracts and heart disease. It enhances insulin function, and is a boon for diabetics. It also does good for the nervous system by protecting the myelin sheaths. As for the skin (and this is the part we all were waiting for ;) , externally applied or topical Vitamin E keeps the skin soft, moisturized, protects it against UV rays and sunburn, along with reducing wrinkles.

Vitamin E, the one at the health level, comes to me through breakfast, lunch and dinner albeit in little quantities. Either the yolk from the boiled egg or some cheese sandwiches in the morning; either rice-bran/ olive oil or spinach for the main meals. I do pop in a few almonds once in a while and when it is the right season, the trout is a must. So when Vitamin E, is so abundantly available, why deny the body of it and its immense benefits? Most importantly, it doesn’t take great effort or practise like my first two ideas of Vitamin E. Add to that, #Evion brings on the table doctor-recommended Evion Supplements, rich in Vitamin E for a healthy, enhanced and awesome lifestyle! 

Like Sir Vincent’s novel received an unfavourable review due to the language limitation due to the lack of E, like I hate writing a paragraph without E, like we hate to be the kind of person who does each and every task gloomily without Vitamin Enthusiasm, like everyone hates the arrogant commuters who spew expletives and evidently lack Vitamin Emotional Intelligence, anyone would hate a lifestyle that lacks the glow and beauty of Vitamin E! 

-Shahen Pardiwala

The number of times E appeared in this article: 479.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Railway Staffers Flunk: Between Kandivali & Parle #2


 Between Kandivali & Parle - Part 2

To know why this section of the blog is called "Between Kandivali & Parle", Click here. 

20 Western Railway employees, were selected as eligible for promotion and appeared for a 150-mark question paper. An internal examination, it included basic questions the answers of which, as reported, officials with a few years of experience would and should have

RESULT: All 20 staff members flunked, with none able to score even as much as 90 out of 150. Just as a reminder, these people were considered eligible for promotion! 

At this point, it might help to say where I am headed to right now

I am on my way to my college, and from today, the Second Year Junior College students' First Terminal examination begins. When I will reach college, there will be talks around of two types. One, talks deriding those who have prepared well. And second, nonchalant talks glorifying, romanticizing and boasting mediocrity: 

"Have you studied?" "I haven't even covered half the portion." "I hope I pass!" "I did not open the book until today morning…" 

The list of baseless excuses is exasperating and endless. 

This is, however not about naive college students who, so far, don't seem consequential for the society or country at large. Baffling would be this explicit comparison I have made, because there doesn't seem to be anything in common. Except one aspect, our attitude. Am I talking about an attitude towards examinations? Because it has been long since we have rationalized the importance of an examination. Having been a home-schooler, I firmly believe in the futility of it. 

However, this is truly about the attitude not towards exams but towards excellence, knowledge and good performance. Inabilities, instead of igniting a flame to improve, have permanently extinguished the fire to try- making most of the functioning machineries complacent.

It is scary to see that the present of India, and seemingly the future, is more or less the same. The officials who flunked the test may well say that the questions were out of their purview’, much like a failing student's plea, out of syllabus! 
We do see, realize and understand this in our urban overpopulated areas- the problem of the educated unemployed, waiting for white collar jobs, feeling entitled to a position or promotion, but completely lacking a drive for doing well. 

If we were to come back to our comparison, our education system tests us on every step of the ladder, but disregard if we truly have the knowledge to carry out some specific task. The very fact that these staffers were unable to answer questions about the working of their own working environment, exposes their lack of knowledge as does an examination for a student in which he or she fails. 

Doesn't this reinstate the fact that the future is going to be similar to how the present is? If a majority of the country is being brought up on a laissez-faire policy, with no discipline or commitment towards one's own field of work, who thinks about the greater good then? 

Let us leave that question unanswered and us move on to another way of looking at this same situation. The Fairness Syndrome that asks if it is correct to determine a worker's knowledge on the basis of a test? Yes, I am an advocate of dedicated excellent achievers. So then is it possible to justify how and why the staffers failed? I don't think so.

But from an opinionistic point of view, I do notice the obsession of each layer of our system, educational and occupational, with tests/ examinations. To be 'eligible' for a promotion, rail employees give an exam. To be eligible for MBBS, science students give NIIT. To be eligible to study engineering, Jee-Mains are a must. UPSC is a must for civil services.

No heredity or nepotism works here. So obsessed with examinations, and why? To verify if the candidates are eligible to work the best for railways, to be sure that the engineers, doctors, IAS officers, etc, are up to the mark and serve the country well! Then why...and do not expect an answer, why is it that a country so obsessed with examination at each stage has no examination held to determine whether a politician is eligible to be a politician and run the country???? 

Why not test their administrative skills? Why not see if they are capable of decision making? Why not make them write essays on 'What will I do if I become a Prime minister?' or why not give them Multiple Choice Questions to check their basic understanding of democracy, national economics and public welfare? Why not check their knowledge of the constitution, of the judiciary, and history of Indian politics? Should each politician not be tested for checking their abilities? The day this question is answered one of two things may happen:

Either each and every politician will be stripped off their privileges and asked to prove themselves in an examination, or, we as a country shall want to entirely do away with the system of examination. 

If each politician were tested and verified for perceiving worst case scenarios and be ready for it beforehand, the situation would not be like that of students who study only when they fail or do poorly once or twice. We would not wait for accidents to happen to make structural changes or riots to happen before curbing cultural nationalism. But such Politician tests are a far fetched dream, the fulfillment of which will require a politician who doesnt mind giving that test.
And till then, we still have the enormous task of assessing the attitude we have towards excellence. Bringing in our college students analogy back in, you surely know what is an onlooker's response when one says, I am going to fail or I embrace mediocrity. It is pity and sympathy. And what is it when one in a crowd of many seeks to perform well. It is awe and respect. 

So what do we, as a nation, in the present and the future want from global onlookers: pity, or respect?


Do comment what you think about the 20 staffers failing at their Promotion Exam.