“Each question is progressively harder than the last,” the test proctor said to me, as she laid a double sided sheet of paper in front of me. “Start at the beginning and complete what you can. Don’t worry, no one has ever finished it. Don’t feel badly when you can’t do anymore.” She placed a sharpened pencil on the desk next to the paper and then left the room. I was alone in a sea of empty chairs and desks. This test was one that I was taking, in a series of tests, to establish my psychological profile and determine my suitability for employment. I don’t remember the time limit placed on the test but I remember the conversation quite well because, when she returned, my test was face down, completed, centered on the desk, pencil alongside.
I remember the conversation because I remember the look on her face – shock, surprise, anger, fascination – as she recognized I had completed the test. Her words of cautionary support, “don’t worry, no one has ever finished it before” rolled back through my mind as she, and then we, stared at the completed test. They weren’t so cautionary or supportive when she spoke again, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” she said, almost angry.
“I’m done,” I replied, almost happy. “I finished it.” She grabbed the paper from the desk, not caring that the pencil was now skewed and out of place. I could hear the Doctor, the man that I would be meeting with shortly to go over my results and, ultimately, determine my fitness for the specialized job, talking with her from where the hallway met our open door. I couldn’t hear his words clearly but I could hear her responses: “he finished it” and “he completed it” she kept saying, but not in a congratulatory or successful way. Where I thought there would be a hey kid, good job in her voice sounded more like a hey kid, get off my lawn.
I stayed in the room, alone, for quite a while, until my sit down with the Doctor. If you’ve never completed a battery of psychological testing for employment suitability let me give you some insight: they suck. They really, really, really suck. Or at least I thought so, and continued to think that way as I took my place across from the good Doctor in his office, ready to atone for synapses, thoughts, and characteristics I consciously couldn’t place or control. He held up the test and we both looked at it, seeing the front and then the back, as he turned it in his hand. “You didn’t actually compete the test,” he said, recognizing what I’d already known. You see, that test is hard. Like: hard. Like algebra and shit hard, filled with tangents and correlations and associations of words with other words and things that looked like science. But here is the secret: as the questions got harder you were supposed to – I was gathering, quickly, based upon the two of us spending time talking about it – stop. I was supposed to stop. The test is designed to get progressively harder so they can see the point at which you quit. And that point is supposed to tell them, and me, something about me.
But here’s the thing: after the questions got really really really hard they got easy again. The last questions, if I recall, were stupid easy. So it arcs and builds and gives you just enough pressure to find the point that you’ll quit. Apparently I was one of the first people to, when confronted with the difficult questions, skip them and look further. I was one of the first people to use the principle of just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean you need to think more. More thinking doesn’t necessarily solve our problems and most problems aren’t necessarily difficult. Most times it comes down to how and what you perceive the problem to be.
In 2012, the International Space Station, a $150 billion dollar outer space jungle gym (it’s more than that, I know, but I don’t science well) faced a unique and troubling threat to its existence when it started losing power and needed a critical part replacement. During the replacement phase, one of the bolts became stripped, forcing shavings and debris to keep the astronauts from completing their work. Power levels for life support and sustainability continued to drop until one of them came up with this:
That is a toothbrush, wrapped it duct tape, attached to a metal tool, that completed the job. NASA, and subsequently astronauts in outer space, have all of the resources and support that humanity can imagine at their fingertips and sometimes – just sometimes – just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean you need to think more.
Now imagine a door marked NOT AN EXIT. We’ve all seen them, they’re in and around every place we go. And almost all of us abide them. But it’s still a door. Of course it’s an exit, fundamentally it is still a door! When you are confronted with NOT AN EXIT take a second and see it for what it is, not what it is telling you. Fundamentally, it’s still a door. Someday, grab your toothbrush and open one, and see where it leads you.