Life’s not a pass or fail.

Life’s not a pass or fail.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Ditching the blackboard of life.

There are a great many things people grade themselves on and don’t realize they are doing it. The act of self-grading is a strange, common practice rooted in self-judgment and expectations indoctrinated over time, and in some ways, grading life can be a source of pride and contentment, driving more success — if you pass.

Conflated with grading life is the view of life as a series of lessons scrawled on a blackboard. If there are lessons, then there must be grades to go with lessons, and when viewed this way, the loss of a job or breakup of marriage becomes a life lesson. The blackboard of life philosophy handles life as learning experiences, and while many religious and spiritual persons argue this is an appropriate metaphor for life meant to teach and further a person, the blackboard reveals a fatalistic quality* if you write on it long enough.

Many actions and decisions earn grades, rarely receiving a C but instead a Pass or Fail followed by a review. “What did I learn from this mistake?” You might believe a little more variety in grading helpful, and gleaming answers from this mistake seems wise, as you seek to learn from a mistake. This wisdom might work if the situation had repetitiveness or operational structure, such as typing memos at work, but applying this thought process to relationships and aspirations causes fatalism to emerge.

Relationships, for most people, are series of failures, ultimately culminating into a lasting marriage. Each relationship is viewed as either a pass or fail, causing a review of the failure when, at least fifty percent, first marriages end in failure and second marriages have no more chance of success than the first. These ‘failed’ marriages are not inclusive of any relationships leading up to the marriage. Depending on how you view these lessons, the report card of relationships might start looking pretty bad.

Life’s not a pass or fail.

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Relationships are not the only lesson on the blackboard, and aspirations also become a learning process subject to grades. Consider “success” as a lesson of life. What is success? If you ask fifty people, you get fifty mishmash answers concerning money, work, family, and other life elements. If success is so subjective, then how can it possibly be graded? This is the same logic as trying to grade a desire for ice cream. Becoming a manager becomes a success because you want to be a manager. Having a family is a success because you want or like having a family. You are now a success having achieved these desires, but when something threatens them, such as divorce, death, the economy, or even just a bad boss, you are now a failure. Worse than a failure, you are a fatalist because you now start reviewing the blackboard and try to determine where you went wrong and what you can learn, assuming there is something to learn since there must be a lesson. Thinking this way makes you a fatalist because the blackboard belief dictates learning a lesson that could only occur from planning or predetermination. Essentially, you are telling yourself you planned to get married and become a manager, and therefore getting divorced and losing your job makes you a failure.

The mere view of life as a series of lessons is an exercise in fatalism since the underlying logic of grading life’s lessons assumes some predetermined quality or qualities of success. A successful marriage means staying together forever. A successful career means making X amount of dollars and ascending to a certain position. Underlying beliefs and assumptions predetermine your life on a winding road of grades, but the bigger rub is not that you pass or fail but that the chalkboard only teaches in hindsight.

If someone hired you to do a job and then placed you at a desk and walked away, you would sit confused, trying to figure out what you needed to do. Suppose the boss returned each time you did something and said, “No, that’s not right.” He then leaves and returns to declare each of your effort as right or wrong. Yes, you will learn the job, but how much time will you waste learning it. Worse yet, the boss comes to you on Friday and tells you, “I don’t think you’re the right fit for this job.” Any normal human being would see the lunacy of this approach, yet everyday people view the chalkboard of life, grading themselves and trying to learn from these so-called failures.

Viewing your life as a chalkboard of lessons is a bad idea as it forces you to live irrationally. If you perceive a successful marriage as “staying together indefinitely,” you open yourself to outcomes such as staying in an unhappy relationship. If you perceive success as “a wife, two kids, a house, and two cars,” then success depends on achieving these elements and, more importantly, maintaining them indefinitely. A divorce, a change in the economy, or anything that alters this success paradigm hurls you into failure. A twenty-five-year marriage ends, and people start reviewing the life lesson to avoid this failure in the future, completing negating the twenty-five years spent in marriage. If the chalkboard of life worked, then people who get divorced should be able to review the lesson and remarry successfully. Statistically, this is not true and second marriages have about the same percentage chance of success as the first. If success means a wife, two kids, a house, and two cars, then losing some if not all of these items should provide the lesson to ensure future success but doesn’t. The Great Depression and Great Recession dispelled the belief that this idea of success is consistently achievable or even sustainable.

Relationships are not lessons; they are “a romantic or sexual friendship between two people,” which may involve a desire to raise children, live together, get married, share finances, etc. Measuring the success of a relationship requires expectations such as staying together forever, and the more expectations you place on it, the more difficult that success becomes. These underlying expectations form the fatalistic lesson plan, which ultimately is counterproductive to the relationship.

Your expectations for a successful marriage might coincide with your partner but may not, and you won’t know this unless you discuss it candidly. This begs the question: how can you possibly discuss these expectations unless you are aware you have them in the first place? You can’t if you are constantly reviewing the blackboard in retrospect.

Like the idea of a relationship, success is not a lesson but a “favorable or desired outcome,” which might involve making large amounts of money, owning a car, or buying a house. Moreover, success is a subjective concept tied to expectations, and again, the more difficult the expectations, the more difficult success achievement and sustainability. The question also asks, what are your expectations of success? Are these realistic? Do they constitute success? These questions can’t be answered, except in the hindsight of the lesson learning approach to life.

Life’s not a pass or fail.3

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Ditching the blackboard of life means adopting a proactive approach to achieving the things you want and need. The way to actualize this approach is to stop defining elements of life as success and failures. Romantic relationships are not a pass or fail, and if you want to have a good, lasting relationship, you and your partner need to concentrate on making that association work. Your first act to achieve this end should be to root out the expectations you place on that relationship and discard the ones that conditionalize the relationship as a pass or fail. For instance, it is a fatalistic view to believe that your partner is supposed to make you successful, and not doing so is a failure of the relationship. Success is not something that can be distilled into a single person or small collection of life’s elements and depends tremendously on your view of success. Furthermore, grading success as a pass or fail runs counter to a good relationship because you conditionalize the person as an object of success rather than part of the relationship. Worse yet, viewing relationships in terms of success creates two failures if the relationship fails since you now have linked your view of a successful life with the relationship.

The view of life as a lesson plan isolates not to relationships and success. Viewing friends, happiness, career, and many other facets of living as “pass” or “fails” can cost you tremendous time and emotional expense. Sitting down and honestly questioning motives and expectations can reveal a lot but catching and ceasing self-grading of life is perhaps the most crucial first step. The more proactively you approach life, the more you recognize this fatalistic flaw in others and avoid subjecting yourself to the blackboard of life.


Fatalism: “a doctrine that events are fixed in advance so that human beings are powerless to change them.”

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Vincent Triola. Wed, Mar 10, 2021. Life’s not a pass or fail. Retrieved from

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