I took the Wolfe Battery Programming Aptitude Assessment yesterday. It’s a grueling, obnoxious test, simulating data structures like linked lists without saying the words and without giving any hint about what they’re useful for. (Good thing I already know that, courtesy of Computer Science 203.) It’s a five-problem test that most people, according to the testing company, complete within four hours. It took me between four and a half and five, but I had nearly an hour’s worth of breaks and interruptions.
It’s been my experience that tests tell you something (but not everything) about some people (but definitely not all people) some of the time (but definitely not all of the time). After administering a standardized test, you may or may not know anything more than you knew before the test, and you have no way of knowing whether you know any more, but if you believe in the things, at least you feel better.

My sister’s never done well on standardized tests. From looking at her test scores, you’d never guess she graduated high school in three and a half years and got her bachelor’s degree in another three and a half. I do well on standardized tests about half the time. Two IQ tests rated me average intelligence; a third rated me a genius. My SAT score was uninspiring; my ACT score got me automatic admission to the University of Missouri, plus a very nice scholarship. The first time I took Wolfe’s programming test, the results stated that I’m incapable of deep, detailed analysis. As far as I know, that’s the only time that’s ever been said of me.

I’ve had coworkers with outstanding test scores who were capable of superhuman feats with a computer. I’ve had coworkers with outstanding test scores who, when trying to fix something, would break it worse than I’d be able to break it if I’d been trying. I’ve had coworkers with test scores worse than mine who were more capable than me.

Personally, I’m a whole lot less interested in someone’s raw ability than I am in what that person does with it. If someone’s got 91 points of ability and isn’t using half of it, and I’m standing over here with 50 points and using almost all of it, which of us is more valuable? Now, supposedly there are tests that try to measure that too. I have no idea how those could work.

I don’t know how I did on the test. The last two questions are a series of simple problems, with each answer dependent on the previous, before you finally get a final answer. Each one took me about 20 minutes to finish. Then I went back and double-checked the problems, and found I made a mistake early in the sequence in each of them. So I ran through the problems a second and a third time, getting the same results the last two times, and they differed from the first. But I’m still not entirely confident I got them right.

My career pretty much hinges on those two problems. If I got them right, I’m promotable where I am. If I didn’t get them right, my chances of ever being promoted appear to approach zero.

Either way, a change is going to have to happen, and soon. I’m tired and beat up. I haven’t felt like writing. I got my hair cut earlier this week, and there was more grey hair on my apron than brown. I wasn’t that grey a year ago. I’m working the kind of hours that sent my dad to the grave at 51. I’ve been extraordinarily irate, to the point that I wonder if anyone likes being around me, because I sure don’t like being around me when I’m that way.

I’ve been here before. First time, I dealt with it by losing myself in a girl. That wasn’t fair to her; the fling lasted about two months, and it scarred us both. What she did in the end wasn’t fair to me, so I guess we’re even. Second time, I dealt with it by losing myself in writing. Now that all’s pretty much said and done with those books (one will be obsolete in a couple of weeks, while the half never made it into print), I made about $4 an hour writing one and a half books, then I acquired a repetitive stress injury. That wasn’t fair to me–I’d have made twice as much flipping burgers on the evening shift at White Castle, and I’d have had nearly as much prestige.

I know I sound like a broken record; every twentysomething I know is asking what he or she should do with life. And I don’t have an answer either.

And when I look at history, it tells me it doesn’t really matter. Even when whole generations set out to do something, what they do rarely makes a difference. That ought to be liberating–I can do what I want because it doesn’t make any difference in the long run.

But somehow it’s not.