The Plague of “Right” Answers

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I’m laughing to myself as I compose this post. It’s sort of like walking through a huge puddle of glue and hoping to get to the other side without (a) getting stuck in the puddle or (b) spreading the glue farther or (c) tripping on all the other people already glued in place, hahaha.

When we’re all so entrenched in something together, trying to describe it is like trying to lift your foot out of that puddle without the glue sticking to the bottom of your shoe. Yeah. I’m covered in it too.

See, I figure that’s what makes it a plague: It’s widespread; it’s infected all of us.

Fifth grade

my awesome fifth-grade self

My earliest awareness of the issue happened while sitting at a fifth-grade desk wearing a turtleneck, a sweatshirt, and knit stirrup pants (no joke—that was what ten-year-old girls wore in 1992; see photo for proof) and staring at a test question that asked me which of the following I needed to use in order to kill germs when washing my hands. I had my pencil all ready to circle “soap”—except I couldn’t find it. “Soap” was not one of my choices.

How did I react? Well, I was mad! I knew the “right” answer and the test was messing me up! It wasn’t letting me be right!

Obviously this stupid test was stupid and wrong and horrible and whoever wrote it was the biggest idiot. Whoever wrote it should be shot. I wanted to rage at someone and defend myself. How dare they create this bogus set of answers to try and make me feel dumb!

Yeah, you can tell I was a totally sweet, easy-going child. Not at all mule-headed.

When the teacher read the answers and revealed that I should have circled “hot water” for that question, it didn’t help me get over it. “That’s so dumb!” I still thought. “You can wash with cold water and soap to kill germs!” Pretty sure I’ve held a grudge against that quiz for the past twenty-three years. I was “right”! It was “wrong”!

Did I learn from it, though? Oh sure.

The rest of my school (i.e. “testing”) years, I was more careful. If those cute little perfect-circle bubbles didn’t give me the option I was looking for, then I would think like the test maker and decide what answer they wanted me to darken with my perfectly sharpened #2 pencil.

Basically, I learned that success meant conforming to what an “expert” has decided is “right.”

Not until adulthood did I start to catch on that experts change their minds:

  • The brontosaurus never existed. (Sure, take away my favorite dinosaur and pretend it was never there to begin with!)
  • Pluto isn’t a planet, so there are only eight, not nine like you were taught . . . no wait now it is a planet again and we’re adding extras.
  • Butter and coconut oil are the nastiness things you could ever eat—in the ’90s; now coconut oil, at least, is a superfood and you should put it in everything because somebody caught on that our bodies sort of need natural, healthy, saturated fats as opposed to nasty substitutes (ahem, “Smart” Balance??) we tried to engineer.
  • And remember how for a while, around the time I started having kids, you weren’t ever supposed to give peanut butter to babies because peanut allergies were on the rise? Well, scratch that. Yeah, the allergy is still on the rise, but now experts have decided avoiding it might be making things worse.

So there’s this extra criteria for being “right”: you not only have to have it from an expert source, but you have to have the latest. Because the latest study is treated as though it were absolute Truth and none shall deny it . . . until the next study takes over that role.

And then, of course, along came social media allowing us to debate “right” answers endlessly and judge each other’s sources (how expert? how recent?) and each declare ourselves the winner. Just as I’ve held on to being “right” about “soap” on that fifth-grade quiz. We aren’t so willing to relent. We aren’t so willing to consider alternatives. We are “right” and they are “wrong” and we will hold to it with our dying breath!

But here’s the thing . . .

Can you blame any of us?

We’ve been conditioned to it. Our entire American educational system is built around getting the answers right. The main thing we were taught from kindergarten all the way through our final college exams was that the very most important trait you could possibly be is “right.” Being “right” on those tests means that you get to move on, move forward, earn a degree, get a high-paying job, be successful.

Your whole life hinges on being “right”!

I could go on a tangent here and mention how this testing culture pervades areas outside of academia, like the medical profession, where some experts (namely the CEO of the American College of Physicians) have estimated we waste $200 to $250 billion per year on unnecessary tests (Sherman). I could point out how once we endure those unnecessary tests, then doctors tell us the “right” answer that goes with our results: surgery or eliminating gluten or whatever else is the “correct” remedy of the day. Never mind, again, the fickleness of science and how this decade’s medical interventions will be considered barbaric fifty years from now. Tangent over.

But what is the alternative to being “right”? Stuck in the glue as we are, the only other option seems like being “wrong”!

It’s all so tiring, to be honest. I’m exhausted just putting quotation marks around the words every time, let alone the weariness of keeping up with all the latest edicts. Hahaha.

So maybe we need to ask a better question, like is there a way to shift out of the right-vs-wrong paradigm altogether?

einstein-quote1A different set of questions can make all the difference.

(Some people go so far as to say the “right” question can make all the difference, but that’s where I said at the beginning that this is a sticky post!)

We could start with “What if . . .?”

Sometimes imagining the possibilities and their ramifications can get our minds heading in new directions. Almost like how citrus oil can dissolve adhesives and simultaneously brighten your mood with the smell—two outcomes that are definitely a great start for getting unstuck.

Forbes article about innovation titled “Are You Asking the Right Question?” (again with being “right” like it’s unavoidably the goal, hahaha) has great advice for the first step toward forming better questions:

Pause. When a person opens their mind to the kind of ideas that come quietly they unveil the deeper, richer thoughts that are too easily chased away by the adrenaline of taking immediate action. Spend some time alone with your thoughts. . . . In the early stages of a difference-making quest, the simple act of paying attention to your thoughts can provide the few degrees of adjustment that brings about the greatest innovation. Everyone has hunches, impressions, and the fragile beginnings of new ideas still forming. Absorb them. Listen to them. Take counsel from them. (Sturt and Nordstrom)

When I’ve paused to consider this epidemic of being “right,” the “what if” that’s been occurring to me looks a bit like this: What would happen if we lived our whole lives without any testing? No tests and no right answers.

Instead, what if we grew up encouraged to educate ourselves through exploration, questioning, guessing, trial and error, etc? What if it was okay to make mistakes and then learn to fix them, okay to change your mind, okay to find new conclusions and never put too much weight in current reasoning? What if we culturally assumed life is a guessing game anyway and we shouldn’t take any of it too seriously? What if we championed respectful discussion as a means to discover others’ ideas and gain additional perspective and consider new possibilities?

I’m not saying we don’t do those things already; I’m saying what if those were the driving force behind our education in place of testing and the memorization/competition of “right” answers?

Then would creativity and individuality thrive far more than they do now?

To me, such a society would teach and value being true to yourself. Not in the sense of trying to compete with everyone else to be most unique, but in the fundamental sense of relying on your own conscience to tell you when something resonates as true for you right then. We would teach our children to listen to that inner voice above all else. We would teach that when you go against your conscience, you risk hurting yourself and those around you.

Thus the most important lesson you would be taught from toddlerhood through your teenage years is to listen to your core self.

Think of all those times when what feels true and good to you seems logically ridiculous, or the times when what feels wrong seems so reasonable you can’t convince anyone else of why you are saying no—until down the road you see the situation with the clarity of hindsight and understand why your conscience guided you that way.

Sometimes none of the choices you are presented with feel good to you, and your conscience prompts, “Maybe we need to ask different questions.” Then as you dig through more ideas and shift your thinking, a true answer emerges that feels perfect for you and your situation—without it having to be “right” for a single other person on the planet.

026Deciding on our kids’ education was like that for us. First grade for my oldest kid at our local elementary felt off to me; I had never thought twice about public school until the nagging in my gut that year wouldn’t let me ignore it anymore. So we switched to homeschooling, and my gut was like, “Eh. Better, but you’re still not there yet.” It compelled me to ask more questions, dig further, change a little more. Since researching and converting to unschooling, I’ve felt so much happier and more peaceful.

But the secret to happiness isn’t unschooling. I don’t need to go around insisting everyone needs to adopt our lifestyle as if it’s a “right” answer.

From my perspective, everyone finds their own secret to happiness by listening to their inner voice.

Haha so maybe in the end I’m still in the glue puddle, offering a “right” choice even after all my careful avoidance of it. But this is like the trump card of all right answers! Because it’s the card that lets all the rest of the answers belong to you.

I mentioned back in January how letting go of being “right” in my marriage has made all the difference. Slowly I’m trying to do that with everything. It’s time to let go of needing to be “right” at all.

As of today, I’m letting go of “soap.” I’m okay that I didn’t get to be “right” on that quiz. In fact, I’m glad of it. I’ve realized the reaction I had is where the true life lesson showed itself. I don’t believe the crucial lesson was to be more careful in order to get it right; I believe the more important lesson was seeing the monster in myself, the one who raged and hissed at not being “right,” and recognize that I don’t really want him around anymore. I think I’ll leave him behind in the glue and try my best to ditch the whole puddle, if I can.

Maybe laughing about it will help? Humor could be my citrus oil, hahaha. It’s time to dissolve that sticky adhesive.

Works Cited

Sherman, Debra. “Stemming the Tide of Overtreatment in U.S. Healthcare.” Reuters. 16 Feb 2012. Web. 11 Mar 2015.

Sturt, David and Todd Nordstrom. “Are You Asking the Right Question?” Forbes. 18 Oct 2013. Web. 11 Mar 2015.

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