You Can’t Win ‘Em All, Even With A Killer To-Do List

It’s a mixed report here.

There has been studying. There has been testing. There has been basketball. There has been success. There has been failure.

The very worst part of the Architectural Registration Exam process is that it has turned me from (somewhat) normal Katherine, back into Grad School Katherine. Those are two very different people. Most of us have a default stress personality which is a flip-side, alter-ego, evil twin. My evil twin is prone to dangerous to-do lists, excessive scheduling, and powering through. My evil twin is driven and perfectionistic and scares the hell out of me, and it took me at least a couple of years after graduation in 2009 to calm her the hell down. In fact, I got a “Happy Anniversary” from WordPress the other day, for when I signed up to start a blog in early 2011. That, a year and a half after graduation, was an attempt to a) see whether I liked writing enough to do it consistently (I do) and b) hold myself accountable for getting out, exploring joyful and creative and interesting things which were not achievement-oriented, and having some fun again (I did.) I felt sort of normal and human again, pretty quickly after that.

But now I’m testing, and I can tell it’s making me crazy because my to-do list on the computer has gone from the basic weekly tasks, to a three-page word document including a million incremental steps for each task, which is attempting to control every moment of my time for the next month. I made myself stop at a month. That is at least some sign of humanity. I can also tell it’s making me crazy because I was in my office a week before my last test, and my throat suddenly hurt, and then I realized for about ten seconds I was not able to take a deep breath, and realized that although I’ve never had a panic attack, this is 100% how they start. So I stopped thinking about how I was going to fit 6 more exams in before June, and I got a cup of coffee, and I took two days off from studying.

I took two exams back-to-back last week. I acknowledge that was an insane plan, although there was some method to the madness, in that the amount of overlapping material is ridiculous.  It’s also the content I feel best about of the whole process; I know a lot about sustainability, and I know a lot about urban design and planning, and I’d already taken the test on professional practice. I felt okay going into it.  I felt sure, when I walked out, that I’d failed the Site Planning and Design test. In the middle of it, my palms were sweating and my mouth was dry and there were questions from all 7 exams being thrown at me, which I think is dirty pool, because either give me one exam and let me study for that, or give me 7 and separate the content, but don’t do both at the same time.  The second exam, Programming, Planning, and Practice, was much easier. There were only a couple of questions where I felt stumped, the drawing was a cakewalk, and I skipped out and went to the PR to watch March Madness in the sunshine. I did the same thing the next afternoon, and I felt positively giddy with the weight of three tests taken, and I slept and caught up with about four people I needed to check on and watched more basketball. It was great.

People. Please. Never check your cellphones pre-dawn while you are still in bed. It is SUCH an unhealthy habit. I do it because it seems like a reasonable transition from lying to standing, and to delay getting out of bed for oooone more minute. I checked mine yesterday, pre-dawn, and got my score report. I failed the test I was sure I had passed, and passed the test I was sure I had failed. And of course, I have passed two hard exams, but all I could see is Fail. I failed. Fail Fail Fail.

I do not like failing. Nothing at all feels good about failing.

And then I had to get dressed and go sit in a meeting with a bunch of really important people all morning, and pretend I was not a hack. Nothing about that feels good, either.  But I am an adult and a professional, and failure is part of growth, whatever. I powered through.

Simultaneously, because this is how the Universe works, tricky tricky trickster, I am getting beaten up from all sides with that whole Vulnerability and Imperfection thing. How many of you have seen the Brene Brown TED talk? No? Stop what you’re doing this instant and watch it. Wait till she gets to her breakdown Spiritual Awakening. I love her. That part where she says, “You know how when people realize that tenderness and vulnerability are important to wholeheartedness, and they learn to surrender and walk into it?  A) That is not me, and B) I DON’T EVEN HANG OUT WITH PEOPLE LIKE THAT.”  I fell apart laughing. You should see my friends, y’all. We are achievers. We are to-do listers. We are professionals, and academics, and creatives, and we Make Things Happen. We calendar six months to a year ahead. We try to master All of the Hard Things. We try to look good doing it.

I’ve been exchanging rounds of e-mails all week on this topic, with some of these amazing people. There are promotions being earned, novels being written, songs being sung, and all kinds of other wonderful things. Interesting that these sorts of accomplishments can be just as hard and jarring and scary as failures. Some of the best people I know this week, even before I capital-F Failed an exam, have been kind enough to share with me, in quotes, their internal monologues about alternating feelings of confidence and “I am a hack and everyone will know it.” These people are most decidedly not hacks. They are smart and accomplished and funny and beautiful and kind. But it felt better to hear that we all struggle with this Impostor Syndrome.

After the third person told me I should read The Gifts of Imperfection, and then NPR or someone recommended it again, I stood in the aisle last week at Quail Ridge and I picked it up five times, and put it down five times. It’s about embracing vulnerability as the cornerstone of everything good in our lives. The one next to it, also by Brene Brown, was called Daring Greatly. That one sounded like something I could get behind. That one sounded like, Achievement! Success! Order and Control! I realized that I should probably not skip ahead, and the fact that I wanted to so badly meant that I should probably read the first book, and be prepared for it to unravel me. It has. I don’t even read self-help books. Don’t like them, don’t want them. Would have skipped this one, too, if I had not already heard her TED talk. Because, I mentioned earlier, I love her.

Of course, because this is how the Universe works and it was not going to let me miss this message, Julia also bought me the book and handed it to me the next day.

I’ve been reading it this week, pre- and post-exam failure, and it has unraveled me a bit, and that’s fine. After holding it together through the meeting with the bigwigs yesterday, I came home and cried all over the chapter about perfectionism, and why we do that to ourselves, and I decided that it’s all fine. It still doesn’t feel good, at all. I do not like not succeeding. I do not like failing. But now I am being asked, nay, forced! to slow down and stop trying to accomplish a fourteen month exam process in five months. I am being asked to accept that this is hard, and think about whether and why I want it. Smarter people than I am have failed at least one of these tests, and gone on to great success. Most people, in fact, fail at least one; the pass rates are not stellar for any of the seven. That’s deliberate.  The president of my company, past president of the American Institute of Architects, in fact failed the aptitude test for architecture entering school, and was told he could enter as a student in any field EXCEPT architecture. He’s done just fine.  I will also be fine. I just won’t be done testing by June.

A smarter person than I might not bother to mention the failure, and might just focus on the eventual success, and keep her mouth shut. However! I am now equipped with hard-core research on vulnerability, shame, and breaking the cycle of perfectionism and inadequacy, because I am halfway through a self-help book. Which is excellent. And so: I share this tale of mixed success and failure, now that I have stopped crying onto my book, because we are all struggling, and we’re all in this together, whatever each of our “things” looks like. And we will get each other through all of this, and we will turn out fine.

I’m off to find some rain boots and stomp in some puddles in the woods. I hope you go forth and do likewise.





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