Last week I took a standardized civil service exam and was reminded how much I dislike the tests. Specifically I dislike the instructions that direct examinees to “choose the best answer.” Sometimes that means none of the answers are right and you have to guess which one the Test thinks is best. Or maybe worse, sometimes multiple answers are correct, but you again have to choose the one you think the Test prefers. Effectively this means you can be penalized for choosing correct responses, if they aren’t also the best. I wonder if part of my current compulsion to make perfect choices can be traced back to these tests that were so prevalent in my developmental years.
As frustrating as they may be though, those bad questions may be a better representation of real life. Life is not simple enough to always have four clear options with one obvious best answer. On the positive side, there are many times when more than one acceptable solution exists, but you’ll rarely be punished as long as the one you choose works. There are also times when no options seem like a good choice and we have to choose what we think is best. Just like most tests, ignoring the problem completely is often graded the same as the worst answer.
Trying to successfully navigate situations that have no apparent way out can feel impossible, especially for a perfectionist. While reading The Black Prism by Brent Weeks, I found a simple family mantra that might help me move when I feel paralyzed by tough situations. “When you don’t know what to do, do what’s right and do what’s in front of you. But not necessarily what’s right in front of you.” It’s short, simple and has a catchy ending that helps you remember the whole thing.
Do what’s right: I don’t think this means make the correct choice, but the one that is in line with your morals. I wear an engineer’s ring that reminds me of the Obligation I took that includes such phrases as “I pledge to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance and respect,” and “I shall participate in none but honest enterprises.” It’s a daily reminder that ethical choices matter. So when you don’t know what to do, choose the path that leads to truth, honor, and justice. Commit to pure and commendable endeavors. Take actions that will support those things you find that are excellent and worthy of praise.
Do what’s in front of you: This is even simpler to explain, but not always easier. Remember that Robert Frost poem about the fork in the road? He stood a long time, looking down both paths to where they bent. He couldn’t tell where either would lead, but eventually he had to choose to leave the fork. It’s easy sometimes to try to see several steps ahead and map out consequences and contingencies, but eventually we have to move. We move from where we are now, not from where we might be later. Focus on the opportunities actually available to you. You can’t do what you can’t do.
Not necessarily what’s right in front of you: Choosing a thing just because it is the easiest or most apparent option usually isn’t the best. Tests and life alike will include tricks and traps to distract you from more rewarding alternatives. Check your perspective to make sure you’ve seen all of the possible opportunities. Take the necessary time to assess the rightness of the paths before you. Then do what you think and feel is best.
The truth is that correct and right are not always the same.