Paul Cockayne – 07791 970406 – firstname.lastname@example.org
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I used to have an eccentric old art master at school, by the name of Bob Tanner, who used, sometimes, to give people a mark of eleven, or even twelve out of ten. When he sat down to mark homework he would start at the top of the pile, giving the first piece of work he saw, let us say, eight out of ten. If he next came to a piece of work that was better, he would award it nine out of ten. The next improvement would get ten out of ten, and then where did he go from there? If the next offering was better still, it had to get eleven. By the same token, I suppose in theory he could have given some homework minus marks, though even my own pathetic efforts at drawing never achieved this nadir.
Bob Tanner’s way of marking was relative, rather than absolute, I suppose. Every piece of work received a fair mark relative to the other pieces, but the theoretical maximum mark of ten was meaningless.
This week, I was talking to a client who was very critical of herself in her everyday life, and we explored how she judged herself. She talked about giving herself marks, and said that ten out of ten was never achievable, that realistically eight out of ten was the most she could ever hope for from herself. But that extra two points that she could never achieve seemed to hurt her, to leave her feeling bad about herself. When I tried to get her to talk about things she was proud of, everything was qualified – she could always do better – nothing was ever really a success.
Of course, looking at how we can do better is a positive thing – if we don’t do that we can become arrogant and complacent. Aiming to do as well as we can – or to do better than we’ve done before – gives us something to strive for, and something we can achieve, but perfection is different – impossible to achieve except perhaps in isolated cases. To aim for perfection is to set yourself up to fail. And besides, who decides what perfection is?
If we adopt a Bob Tanner attitude to judging ourselves, we can look at what we do in a relative, rather than an absolute way. This means that there is no “out of ten”, no perfection that we can aspire to, but that instead we think about how we are doing differently. We might judge ourselves in various ways, for example by comparing ourselves to others; by looking at the impact we have on others; by looking at some sort of internal standards we have for ourselves. But none of these ways of judging really lends itself to giving marks out of ten. Instead, we can ask ourselves questions that are more meaningful such as : “What did I do well?” and “What can I do better?”
We can constantly strive to improve ourselves. However well we do, there is always more we can achieve. I wonder how many out of ten Bob Tanner might have given to Van Gogh? 187/10? So, tomorrow, Vincent, can you achieve 188?