Is life just a test?

“Life is really testing me.”

We have all heard this statement before and no doubt said it. There are moments we feel as if life is really putting us through our paces. Like we are sitting in an exam hall, staring down the clock, feeling unprepared as we look at the question before us — what on earth, I don’t remember this being in the course materials, I have no fucken clue what is going on here, this isn’t fair!

There is a major flaw in this kind of thinking though; tests only have one of two outcomes — pass or fail.

Life viewed through this lens can place a hell of a lot more weight on our shoulders because no one likes to fail.

It also creates a dichotomy around our decision making process, everything is good or bad, right or wrong. It makes our thinking rigid and attitude towards life harsh and almost unforgiving; it also narrows our line of sight, like a horse with blinkers on, we are closed to outside opportunities.

World-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has spent decades researching achievement and success. She discovered mindset is the huge predictor of success and achievement in our lives.

In researching children, she discovered they either had a “fixed mindset” or “growth mindset”.

Children with a “fixed mindset” tended to be praised by parents or teacher for their intelligence and had an ingrained sense of their ability — they viewed it as a fixed entity, a thing that cannot evolve. These children were prone to quit in the face of challenges and took on a “learned helplessness orientation”.

Children with a “growth mindset” tended to hear language like ‘great job, you got it because you worked hard’. They attributed their success not to their level of ability, but to the hard work they put in. The “growth mindset” allowed them to form the view that with consistent hard work, anything is possible. This view created a love of learning and resilience in the face of challenges.

Now consider these findings in our day-to-day lives.

Those with a “growth mindset” view everything in life as a possible lesson. Something to learn from and improve upon. There is no such thing as a mistake, only a lesson.

Those with a “fixed mindset” view everything in life as ‘good or bad’, ‘right or wrong’. Difficulties and life deviating from the plan is wrong or unfair, they find it harder to recover from upsets and when they finally do, they file it away as bad or a mistake, try to forget it and move on.

I would like to think I am the former, but upon closer inspection a painful truth emerges, I have been the latter — I have viewed much of life as a test, something to succeed at or fail. I have been my own harshest critic — and not the constructive kind either.

Many times throughout my journey I have found myself in similar circumstances, like resitting a test I just couldn’t pass (karmic cycle).

Rather than knuckling down and trying to distil the lesson from each incident, I would take on a ‘helplessness attitude’ or ‘woe is me’ and downward spiral.

What’s wrong with me, why do I keep screwing up, why does this keep happening to me?

Each ‘success’ was good, but the feeling was fleeting and each ‘failure’ was bad and lead to a downward spiral — depression, alcohol abuse, sense of helplessness.

There was no long-term, objective based thinking. My failures stung and lead me to believe I was failing at life.

Don’t get me wrong, through all of my ‘mistakes’ I have stood back up and had an underlying faith that I would find my way back to the path I had fallen so far from. I believe this grit (or stubborn streak) is the only reason I have managed to keep taking small steps forward — no matter how painfully slow.

However, a lot of my lessons were learnt the hard way. I wasn’t consciously learning, I was more learning by default — like a fly against a glass door, I always got where I wanted — after banging my head into the same problems a few extra times…

The good news is, unlike our IQ, our mindsets have been learned — which means they can be unlearned and recalibrated.

Life viewed through the lens of learning takes on a whole new picture. With no pressure of failure, everything is merely a lesson — move forward through the wins, or learn through the losses, either way we are not stagnant and continue to expand.

Think about it. If we consciously choose to learn from every incident in our lives, not only does our learning become accelerated, but it brings a sense of play back into life. Like a child in a class full of toys, we can only create, play and dream big — because why wouldn’t we?

Without a fear of failure — judgment, self-doubt, criticism and ego melt away and we are left in a more constant state of happiness in our pursuits.

“Those who are armed with a healthy attitude are able to draw wisdom from every experience, “good” or “bad”, they are the ones who make it down the road. They are also the ones who are happier along the way” ~ Josh Waitzkin

If we are not actively growing, then we are inactively shrinking.

Life is not a test.

Live. Love. Learn. Grow.

Related reading — if you enjoyed this check out “The Art of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin.

AND if you liked this piece, go ahead and click on the little green heart to recommend to others — sharing is caring and all that.