By Rabbi Mordechai Kruger
What scares you? What gets your heart pounding, knees knocking, sweat pouring down your back? For some, it’s public speaking or performing. Killing bugs would get a lot of votes. First dates, or last ones, can inspire perspiration. But for a single experience that puts masses of people in nail-biting terror mode, few things can compete with taking the SAT.
Who could blame anyone for being nervous? One test, one afternoon, with repercussions that can change a whole life—who wouldn’t be scared? A scholastic aptitude test. A test that will show the world whether you have what it takes to succeed in higher education, which could be a proving ground for demonstrating your ability to succeed in life. A test that measures deeply seated traits that are the bedrock supporting future academic success.
Oops… check that. For decades, this is the way that the SAT was sold to the American public. Until it became obvious that it wasn’t true. Somebody finally noticed that doing well on the SAT had no correlation to doing well in actual college courses. Yet the test company persisted in claiming that the SAT had value because it measured aptitude, something innate that couldn’t be taught, and certainly couldn’t be coached in a crash course designed to beat the test. Until that also was shown to be false. Today, the A in SAT doesn’t stand for aptitude. It doesn’t stand for anything. The name of the test is SAT. It bills itself as a test that measures skills that are highly correlated with academic success. Given the fact that it has been redesigned a number of times over recent years, I would conclude that even these experts, with all their years of experience, actually aren’t sure what those skills are, or how to measure them. And therein lies a lesson for all of us.
Many of my clients, whether at the beginning of their working lives or somewhere in the middle, ask me if I am going to give them some sort of test. They are hoping for some expert guidance that will tell them What They Should Be Doing, (yes, all capitals, as befits oracular pronouncements). They are interested in what I might suggest for them, but advice that comes from experts—that would really be good. And advice that is generated by a computerized test would be worth a trip to Delphi (which is at the foot of Mount Parnassus—how spooky is that?).They want this guidance because they would like to look for a job that matches their—you guessed it—aptitudes. And they are surprised when I tell them that there is no such thing.
My favorite story about aptitudes involves the famous Rothschilds. In the late 1700s, Meyer Anschel Rothschild sent four of his sons to set up businesses in European capitals, while keeping one son at home in Frankfurt. Nathan, in England, and Jacob, in France, were the ones who made the family so enormously wealthy that today, over two centuries later, they remain one of the richest families on earth. Nathan was the one who dreamed up what we today would call international banking. At the head of N.M. Rothschild and Son (still in business today at the same location), the wealth of nations and the fortunes of kings and princes were in his hands. He controlled and regulated the flow of astonishing amounts of gold and currency. Oh, umm, oops again. He really didn’t regulate or keep track of things very well. The company archives feature many letters from Meyer to his prodigal son, berating him for sloppy bookkeeping and inaccurate reports. Nathan was actually a terrible accountant.
I can only imagine if some career counselor had been working in Frankfurt in 1790. Meyer Rothschild, concerned parent and head of a growing business, brings in his little Natty to get some advice. What will be with this kid? Whipping out the finest aptitude tests of the day (I know, they hadn’t been invented yet, but just imagine, okay?) the counselor discovers Natty’s weakness and suggests that law or something similar might be a good choice, but for sure, absolutely, definitely, stay away from banking and anything else where you have to keep track of money. A disaster waiting to happen! Happily, neither Meyer nor Nathan dwelled on weaknesses. They saw opportunities and maximized their strengths. And so should we all.
When people ask me if they can pursue one idea or another, I respond with my most oft-repeated rule: any advice that includes the word “can’t” is guaranteed to be wrong. Any perceived handicap, lack of skill, aptitude, etc., represents a problem to be solved and nothing more. While it is true that some problems can’t be solved, it is also true that a lot more than we realize can be mitigated, avoided, reframed, postponed, and handled in ways that conventional wisdom and proven approaches would never suggest. Many of the greatest success stories in every field begin with a person who seemed to have no chance until he thought of another way.
The only aptitudes that count are the willingness to work hard, learn constantly, take risks, and follow through. They can guide us to careers that will be blessed with success. v
Rabbi Mordechai Kruger is the founder and director of Pathways to Parnassa, an organization providing job-search and career coaching to our community. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.