Thinking About Thinking - 2017


SAT Score: Chore or Ore?

By Balaji Prasad

“Passion is what gets you through the hardest times
that might otherwise make strong men weak
or make you give up."
? Neil deGrasse Tyson

We live in an age, where physical capabilities have generally become less valued than abilities to perform mental feats. So, the world's wealth distribution system is, understandably, skewed in the direction of brain rather than brawn. Core to this way of operating is the ability to figure out who ranks higher than whom, with regard to performance as we define it. Colleges, jobs, social standing, and all other kinds of tangible and intangible rewards depend on the ability to rate and rank people based on their “smartness" – a quality that underpins the kind of performance valued by our society.

But smartness is not easy to assess. It is not like differentiating degrees of physical strength based on who can lift a bigger load. But we are resourceful people. We have come up with grades, scores and tests like the SAT and ACT. There are other systems too, that purport to measure IQ, EQ, psychological quotients. When someone has some combination of scores across these things, they are presumed to be capable of having what it takes. Often, the word “smart" comes into play.

Is this obsessiveness with measuring people's abilities a healthy one? Does it make for a better world? And, can we be confident that we are actually measuring the thing that we set out to measure, or do we end up creating illusory metrics that mislead rather than inform? Do we lose something in the process?

Can we measure “smartness"?

Are you smarter than a chair? Most people would say yes to this. But can you do what a chair can do? Arguably, not. Even if you end up competing with that chair, can you do what it does, as effectively as it does? Most certainly not! The chair is designed to do some things well, and you are capable of a whole range of things, but being a good chair is not one of them.

So, going back to the question: are you smarter than a chair? Can we agree that the answer to this would be a tentative “it depends", rather than a firm “yes"? It all depends on the scope of the question, and the definition of “smartness" that emerges from that. It depends on the job that needs to be done.

The comparison with a chair was just to make a point. It's the same thing when we try to compare one person against another; it is difficult to do a flat-out “who is smarter" comparison. While we are fascinated with measurement-based systems, at some level, we also realize the inadequacy of simple measures. This is a good thing. Imagine the horror of a world where everyone is ranked according to his or her smartness, and treated according to some smartness rank!

Things are not as bad as they could be, but that does not mean that things are rational and fair. To be successful, you need to understand where the goal is, what the rules of the game are, what makes you a good player in the game, what scores matter, and how much they matter.

Scores – A double whammy

There is a dark side to scores. You can get overly focused on measures that others supposedly care about, rather than on what you do. That focus can prevent you from doing something well, because of the disconnect between actual performance and some illusory metric. Plus, there is only so much enjoyment you can get from numbers, especially during the time when you are working toward some number, without any guarantee that you will actually achieve that metric. And, when you do get the score, any pleasure that comes from it is ephemeral. It is not quite the same as the pleasure derived from seeing something beautiful that you create. Also, you miss the whole experience of doing something with passion, engaging with it and coaxing the most out of it. You go to the ball, but you're too busy to dance!

If the journey is uninspiring and the destination is insipid, is it unfair to call the whole thing about scores a double whammy?

Be smart about being smart!

When you get put into a box, you cannot keep complaining. You learn to make yourself comfortable in the box. All of us are put into various boxes, whether it is at school, on the job, in family situations, whatever. We don't always get to choose our boxes. But … we do get to choose what we do, and how we operate within the boxes that we cannot break out of. It takes creativity and we all have some degree of that. It may be useful to think about creativity as a kind of smartness that transcends the traditional notion of smartness, and makes the experience of being in the “smart" box a more pleasant, perhaps even a gainful one.

To the high-schoolers out there...

There are a couple of important things that I wanted to bring out, especially for the young people who are looking to do well in school and get into good colleges and careers. Things like the SAT don't have to be viewed as dampers. Nor grades at school. People will measure you by these things, of course. These are boxes you get put into; and no, you don't get to decide whether those boxes are good or bad – they just are. However, you can use them to your advantage. It is a matter of attitude and creativity. If you must do what you have to do, you might as well enjoy the experience while you are doing it. It is your time after all, and your experience that gets compromised if you don't do this. And, this is important …. As many famous achievers have said before, if you enjoy what you do, the results will take care of themselves.

Can you enjoy preparing for the SAT?

Learning and developing capability is a pleasurable, wholesome exercise. Ask any toddler who keeps trying and trying and trying to walk, falling many times during the process. I say this to students who have difficulty with tests such as the SAT: Think of a score and a chore as ore; mine it for some gold. If I can help with this, I will be happy to.