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Our obsession with the ‘secrets’ of examination success

Every year, it’s the same. Every year Kenya’s public examination results are announced. Every year, the whole nation goes into a frenzy. Every year, we are told about “winners and losers.” Every year, there will be a newspaper article where the most successful students are asked to reveal the “secrets” of their success.

And every year, the results of asking the top-swot students for their secrets will be the same. The leading factors driving their success are, invariably: working very hard; and praying very hard.

My first question: why do we even think there’s a “secret” in the first place? Why do we imagine there’s some powerful hidden code that only a select few know, and we could all ace the exams, if only someone let us in on the secret…

It’s perhaps OK for children to think like that. But the fact the grownups do the same should give us pause. This search for secrets confuses us in adulthood too: witness the number of best-selling self-help books that purport to reveal the secrets of the rich and successful.

My second question: why do we never interview the poor “losers” – those who failed the examination? Those pupils are vastly more numerous than the “winners” are – but no one ever studies them. This is because of the human tendency to think that success has its secrets but failure is to be shunned.

Suppose you did interview the failures. Would you not find many, many children who also studied very hard and prayed very hard – but failed nonetheless? What does that then tell us about the factors of success?

My third question: do we think we are told the truth in these banal surveys of successful students? Or do the kids tell us what their parents and teachers want them to say (you will note that praise of parents and teachers features prominently in the children’s accounts, ahem).

I am yet to hear the following reasons for exam success being offered: I was simply cleverer than anyone else in my class. My father paid for intensive additional tutoring. My headmaster was selling the exam papers. I am manically competitive, and cannot fathom being second-best. I fluked it, because all the stuff I studied came in the exam. I am neither good-looking nor sporty, so topping the class is my only path to fame.

I trust you get my point. There are many, many factors that can cause a child to be successful in examinations. For some, it’s genetic wiring that predisposes them to have a natural aptitude for certain types of knowledge. For others, it’s an obsessive work ethic which in turn can be caused by many forces. A conducive home environment and supportive parents could be the dominant reason. A well-equipped school with a top-notch teacher or two can work wonders. So, of course, can exam leakage…

Equally, failing to pass an exam is not about being lazy or failing to fear God. How many lives come unstuck at an early stage because of exam failure caused by illness, injury, poverty or simply not having the proper tools of learning?

Let us stop trying to reduce success to a couple of banalities. It’s complicated. And let us stop taking this simple-mindedness into our adult selves. We can fritter away our entire lives searching for these elusive secrets, when the only secret worth knowing is that there are no secrets of success. Every life is unique, and you’ll have to find your own way to make it.

To guide you: it helps if you really care about what you do. It helps to enjoy what you do as you do it. It helps to know your own intellectual assets intimately, and to align your chosen vocation with them. It helps to go deep and not splash around in the shallows. It helps to put in the hours. It helps to try things out, to practice and to raise your game. It helps to have good health. It helps to have a supportive environment. It helps to have a deeper belief system.

All these things help, and yet that’s all they do: help. There are no guarantees. Nor is an examination the final word. Many of those winners will lose at the bigger game of life. Many of those losers will dust themselves off and use the humiliation of loss to drive themselves forward. Life’s rich pageant has many acts and intervals and plot twists before its final conclusion.

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