Exam season is here. There’s nothing alarming about that, because it is here every year, at this time of the year. But yet, there is reason to be alarmed, this year, and every year, because of the kind of turmoil it causes, not only amongst the aspiring exam-takers, but also amongst their parents and teachers and uncles and aunts and grandparents, and anyone who is in any way connected to them.
So what is it about exams that make them hold so much power?
It is because exams are used by everybody—society at large, families in particular, and students in specific—as an external, objective, uniform benchmark to evaluate a person’s worth.
Students use it to assess for themselves how good, or bad, they are and how they measure up, and will measure up in the future, against the world. They use it to assess for themselves whether they will be a success or failure in life. If they get good marks in exams they can tell themselves that they will be successful in life, or at least that they have a better chance of it. If they don’t get good marks in exams then they may assume that they will be a failure in life going forward.
The reality though is that marks are not a predictor, or guarantor, or success and failure in life. Firstly, there is no one definition of success. Success and failure are not universal external objective definitions that apply to everyone. Each person must define for themselves what success and failure mean to them. One person’s concept of success may be based on how much money they earn, while another’s concept of success may be based on the number of lives they are able to touch, while a third’s concept may be based on being able to care for the family. To each his own. There is no one definition of success and we must not let anyone give their definition to us.
Secondly, success and failure are terms used to define events in life, not labels for people. It is not that a person is a success or failure, but rather that a person has been successful or not successful at a particular task in their life. It is not something that defines their life in totality, but merely a particular aspect of their life, at a particular point of time. So even if you are successful in an exam it does not mean you become a success in life. And likewise, if you are unsuccessful in an exam it does not mean that you are a failure in life. There are others aspects to you which you must remember in defining and labeling yourself. And it is not a definition, or label, that needs to stick to you for life.
Thirdly, each success and failure needs to be put into the perspective of your whole life. While studying for, and taking an exam, it seems to define your whole life and is the most important event in your life, at that point of time. However, it is important to remember that six months down the line or a year down the line, it will not have the same significance. In fact, it may not have any significance at all. If you are appearing for Board exams, next year at the same time, the marks you got in these exams will not be relevant. Marks may open some doors for you but they don’t guarantee success inside the door. They may get you admission into some colleges, or job interviews in more prestigious companies, but they don’t guarantee that you will be a success in that better college or better job.
Finally, success in life depends on a lot more than marks. You may score 100% in your exam and still not feel successful at work, or in life. In the workplace it depends on your confidence and self-esteem, your ability to communicate, your ability to learn, unlearn and relearn, your ability to be a team player, a leader, a creative problem-solver, a thinker, a doer, among other things. In relationships it depends on being able to connect with people and relate to them, sometimes putting others’ needs ahead of your own. All this depends to a great extent on your belief in yourself and your worth.
This is not to say that you should not worry about your exams and put in your best effort. That you must, because if you do not perform up to your potential, you will feel dissatisfied about it. So put in your best effort. But don’t believe that your life depends on it, because it does not.
Given all of this, how do you deal with expectations—expectations you have of yourself; expectations your parents have of you; expectations your teachers have of you; expectations the world at large has of you? There’s only one way to do it and that is to believe in yourself and your worth—to know that you are worthy, irrespective of your marks in an exam. The marks may be an added bonus.
Often the self-talk we have is negative. It is about how useless and worthless we are. It is about how society will judge us as that. It is about how parents and teachers will be disappointed in us. The reality is that the world may be disappointed in us, but that is their choice and something they have to learn to deal with, if they choose that path. Besides their definition of your success may keep changing over time and you may never get there. That is not something you can control. You must not be disappointed with yourself and that is the important part. Ultimately your parents and teachers want you to be happy, and if you are able to demonstrate to them that you are happy with the choices you make, they will eventually come around. So put in your best effort and do the best you can, but do it for yourself.
Remember, if one door closes, another one will open, provided you allow yourself to look for it. But no door opens without your best effort, so don’t forget that part of your role in this amazing thing called life.
Maullika Sharma is a Bangalore-based counselor who quit her corporate career to work in the mental health space. Maullika works with Workplace Options, a global employee wellbeing company, and practices at the Reach Clinic, Bangalore. If you have any questions pertaining to this column please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.