Lessons learnt from exams must be forgotten at work


In exams, effort brings rewards, you alone are responsible for your success, failure matters and waffle is exposed – none of this applies in the workplace

LAST WEEK, I promised my daughters that whatever they do in their working lives, nothing will ever be as bad as this. It was 10.45pm and they were sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by notes on exothermic reactions and quotes from Paradise Lost.

When all this is over, I assured them, what comes next will seem a doddle. GCSEs, A-levels and finals are a hell that nothing in the office will ever match.

They looked at me contemptuously and I can see why. It seems so unlikely that life’s most traumatic tests should come so early; that paid work, which is serious, should leave us so relatively untouched, whereas academic work, which should be more carefree, can scar for life.

Yet more than 25 years have passed since I sat finals and still I wake at night with my heart thudding, dreaming that I had forgotten to revise, or had had to take physics instead of philosophy.

In my other standard nightmare, all my teeth have fallen out, but that dream is a walk in the park compared with that moment of existential despair when you are in the school gym and you turn over the paper to find yourself unable to answer the questions.

There is no job interview, no scary presentation, no terrifying after dinner speech, no bruising negative feedback that can do such lasting psychic damage. Nor is there any work project (unless one is a corporate lawyer or investment banker) that requires such mercilessly hard work.

I mentioned this to a friend who has a senior job in business. She said the raw effort she put into revising The Faerie Queenewas a hundred times more intense than what she put into a recent pitch for a multimillion-pound contract.

It’s tempting to conclude that the exam system is wrong to inflict such pain for so little gain. It is not as if we remember the facts that we stuffed into our heads at the very last minute.

On the evening of my finals, I could probably have told you about Wittgenstein’s view on the indeterminacy of translation but now all I can recall is the picture that was a duck one minute and a rabbit the next.

Yet that isn’t why it’s all a waste. Even though I’ve forgotten what I learnt, I am still proud to have once known it. This seems a less shameful state of ignorance than never having known it at all.

The real problem with the exam system is that it teaches lessons about work itself that you need to unlearn pretty smartly if you want to get ahead in business.

First, it teaches you that there is a fairly straightforward relationship between effort and result. In exams, if you work very, very hard in the evenings you are going to do an awful lot better than if you spend your evenings in the pub. In most office life, this is not true. The relationship between effort and reward is much more complicated.

Second, in an exam there is nowhere to hide. If you fail you may try to pin the blame on your teachers or the examiner, but in your heart you know there is no one else to blame but yourself. You either weren’t bright enough, or you didn’t work hard enough.

One of the beauties of office work is that there is no shortage of candidates to blame for one’s failures. Management, the market, the culture, one’s colleagues, the competitors, an IT failure: the options are endless. You can screw something up royally and get away with it indefinitely.

Indeed, so long as you are quite senior you can bring the entire banking system down and still get a big bonus.

The third bad lesson from exams is that failure matters. If you flunk finals you don’t get the chance to do them again.

Real life is much more forgiving. That presentation went badly? There will be another one along soon enough, which might go a bit better.

More dangerously still, the politics of exams are upside down. You work as hard as humanly possible while trying to unsettle fellow students by claiming to have done nothing at all.

With real work it is the other way round. The secret is to do as little as you can get away with, but make it seem that you are slogging your guts out.

In offices, people go home early and leave their jackets on their chairs and instruct their computers to send out work e-mails at 1am. There is no such thing as being seen to work too hard.

Finally, exams demand clarity of thought and expression and penalise waffle and bulls***. Whereas in business, alas, waffle and bulls*** have become the gold standard.

There is, however, one thing that exams do teach you about work that is essential to remember in offices – that boys and girls are different. My daughters weep after exams, because they are girls. They say that they have done horribly badly, because they focus on the bit they got wrong rather than the bit they got right. Boys come swaggering out of exams declaring it to have been a piece of piss.

The difference is confidence. Last week, YouGov published a survey claiming that the average office worker acquires confidence at 37 after an average of 30,000 hours on the job.

This is one of the worst statistics I have ever seen. Boys arriving in the workplace will profess themselves confident after the first hour. Most of my female contemporaries, thinking that work is an exam in which the full marks one wants are never quite forthcoming, are still searching for confidence at nearly 50. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009