The other side to success

Year 12 results come out today in my state, after a year in which no-one would have chosen to sit their final high school exams. I live through Year 12 results every year as a teacher and this year because of people close to me receiving results I’m experiencing it more close to home. This has given me pause to reflect on my own experience of getting my results 19 years ago.

I’ve been thinking in particular about something we tell all our students every year at my school: that “the number doesn’t define you”. Had someone told me that at the time, it would have sounded to me like a pat, “you’re all winners” kind of platitude. I also would have thought that it was something you said to prepare people for doing badly, but if they did well then it was fine to let it define them.

What people never tell you is that you’ll have to process how to handle the significance of your result whatever it is, high or low. If it’s low, or simply average, it might mean an adjustment of expectations in the immediate term. It might mean a change of preferences for tertiary study. It might mean a loss of dreams. But if you do well and you still let the result define you, then you’ll have to deal with the neverending question of how well is good enough. If you come to expect perfection, it’s never enough. Even if you attain perfection once, there’ll always be the challenge to maintain it, and that will either never happen or it will destroy relationships, mental health, and all elements of life that make you slow down and show grace to yourself and others. In other words, you might get a perfect score in your work but everything else will have to suffer, and you will probably find that it really isn’t worth it.

My VCE results got me into the course of my choice and meant that my uni paid for me to study with them. It also set a standard for myself in my head that I spent over a decade fighting to maintain. I still struggle with the pressure to seek perfection and to see no middle ground between perfection and failure. My academic results led to panic attacks throughout uni that then ate into my personal life and made panic my primary way of operating in all challenging aspects of life. And when I became a teacher, and then a husband, and then a dad, I entered realms of life in which hard work could never mean perfection. I couldn’t control my students’ results. I could never be a perfect husband or dad. I would always have to drop some balls some of the time. I may never be in the 99th percentile of life again and that needed to be okay.

The truth is that our English word “perfect” has lost track of its own meaning. It means “complete”. The Greek version comes from the word “telos” which means an end point, a destination. It refers to a point of arrival. Something is perfect when it has finished its job. I will not be perfect until my race is finished, and God willing that’s still a few years away. And the thing that will conclude my race and make it perfect is not my achievement but my dependence on grace. Grace enables me to love myself and others. Grace enables me to get up again in the morning, and to turn around and face my family again after I’ve blown a fuse or said something I regret. Grace makes my failures into successes and makes my successes into means of further grace not just for myself but for others. Without grace, I am all sound and fury, whatever number academic bodies attach to that sound, however socially acceptable the fury. With grace, everything – everything – is turned towards a perfect end.

That’s what I wish they told me about success 19 years ago. That’s why the number – whatever it is – must not define you. Only grace is worth that much.

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