There’s been an explosion of reality TV contests –  the Next Big Whatever Star. While the chance to become a celebrity lures contestants, I think it’s the grueling rite of passage that lures viewers. Last month we had exams at the Process Work Institute, which were fairly intense 3 day affairs, with 5 different exams per student. It’s interesting that in the adult education field that I’m in, exams are controversial and their value suspect. And yet, there’s this fascination in watching these demanding and punishing contests.

Over the 20+ years we have been training people in Process-oriented psychology and group facilitation, we have gone back and forth between pass/fail exams in some form and a non-pass/fail system of using gates or benchmarks to pass through one phase to another. It seems every couple of years or so, we debate getting rid of exams. They’re an arcane gate-keeping system that does little to foster or measure real growth in knowledge, skills and ability. And yet we come back to them in some form or other. I think, beyond the test of skills and abilities, they offer an opportunity par excellence to stretch beyond oneself, and for that reason, they are hard to abolish.

I think this is especially valuable in professions where performance under pressure is demanded. The exam simulates the pressures of the job or situation for which the examinee is being tested. The black belt exams in the martial arts are like that, or the bar exam. And I think there should be a leadership test, as well, where leaders in training have to undergo something that simulates the stress and psychological pressures of the job.

One such test is The Knowledge, the exam to drive a black cab in London, and the world’s most demanding taxicab driver test. I thought my Latin exam was tough! In The Knowledge applicants spend an average of 34 months memorizing 320 routes –  25,000 streets in a 6 mile radius of Charing Cross. After passing the written test, they are then allowed to make an “appearance” in (i.e., sit for) the oral examination. Here’s an example – just one of dozens of parts to the test:

Each examination will involve the examiner asking you to state the location of two specified points of interest. This can be a street, a square, etc. or a named building, in other words anywhere that a taxi passenger might ask to be taken. If you can give the correct locations of the two points you will be asked to describe the shortest possible route between the two.

While some exams don’t necessarily simulate the pressure of a job, their rigor alone makes them a rite of passage, a trial of determination, focus and will. For me, it was the State Latin exam at the University of Zurich which I thankfully passed in 1985.

As a young foreign student at the University of Zurich, I trembled at the thought of it. Stories circulated about students who finished all their course work and wrote a brilliant these but could not graduate because they were stuck in Latin purgatory. The written exam (the easier one) meant translating one of Cicero’s speeches without dictionaries and within a two hour limit. And the oral exam was to read aloud, in perfect meter and pronunciation, a short section from one of the 12 books of the Aeneid, and answer questions about the epic.

As I write, it’s hard to recall how I passed that exam. And that is the beauty of a rite of passage – whether exam, life event, contest or other challenge. It pulls something out of us that we would otherwise not be able to access. It brings forth the conditions of “game day,” the ability to access skills and perform under enormous pressure and stress.

Back to our program. I like that we have exams, that we expect people to use their awareness under pressure and subject themselves to the rigors of the experience. And of course, pressure is not enough. Good teaching has to occur, support and coaching has to be present. And sometimes failing can be the perfect life lesson. The rite of passage is unpredictable. It’s not just about getting through, it’s about the crossing of an edge, the passage from one state of mind to another, and discovering things in ourselves we otherwise would not have encountered. In that sense, it really is a test of character: can you make the most out of what life presents? When I look at how our students, I feel they passed that test with flying colors.