Fourth time’s the charm

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The spring of 1998 was a nightmare for me.  I was nearing the end of a one-year training program to get a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) designation, and having an epic struggle with an elective that I needed for graduation.

I failed the SQL Server Administration examination three times in a row.

When success follows success, when wins come too easily, you become inured to the process and start taking the wins for granted.   All it takes is one stumble to smash everything to pieces, and it takes a bit of time to pick up the pieces and figure out what the hell went wrong.

After two more attempts, and two more punches to the gut, I owned up to the fact that (a) some of the exam questions didn’t make all that much sense to me, and (b) I had to come up with a new way of studying the material.

In the end, what I had to do was reverse-engineer the questions as I remembered them from the exam room:  Figure out what the questions actually meant, look up all the relevant terminology and best practices, and then explain the questions to myself in my own words, one sentence at a time.  It worked.  When I went to write the SQL exam for the fourth time, when I pressed the “End Test” button I got the thrilling green of victory on the screen instead of the agonizing red of defeat.

A similar process unfolded in 2001 when learning how to drive.  Again it took me four tries to get it right and get my license.  The takeaway from that experience was that I need a lot of extra practice time to acquire physical skills, especially gross motor skills.  Fine motor skills, such as typing or playing a musical instrument, are comparatively easy compared to the multi-limb mayhem of steer / signal / shoulder check / mirror check / monitor dashboard data / obey road signs / yield to jaywalking squirrels / accelerate / brake / get the %#!! away from that idiot in the pickup truck.

I doubt that failure will ever be a pleasant experience, but if it’s worth a second (or third or fourth) try, there’s probably a great lesson hiding in there somewhere.

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