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Match This Pattern

Match This Pattern
Published on Apr 24, 2023.

So there I was, caught between two things as a child, two powerful forces that it would take me decades to recognize. On one hand, I wanted to bask in the recognition of being special. On the other, I wanted to chase truth at all costs.

The two had to be reconciled, and there was only one way to do it. I began to believe that recognition from other people – from my peers and from adults – was based on the truth. That the judgments made about the talents and potential of children was based on an actual science, backed by the truth of reality.

I didn’t have to look far for justification for this reasoning. The educational system itself claimed to do exactly that. It claimed, above all, to be fair and impartial.

It does this through the veneer of objectivity. The reasons that some kids are labeled “special” or “gifted” are done through mechanisms that resemble the objectivity of science. They’re done through tests and grading rubrics painstakingly developed by some faceless experts, who have spent their whole lives studying how to do exactly this. Their creations – the test we all take, the curriculum we all study – are meant to be as scientifically rigorous as the laboratory experiments that revealed to us the underlying structure of the cosmos.

Except they aren’t.

In third grade I took an IQ test that changed my life. Because of the results of that IQ test, I was whisked away from my elementary school, and bussed to a separate school with 13 other kids from my district, to be part of a “gifted and talented” program.

I remember the test pretty well. It had a few typical questions. One asked what the next pattern would be in a sequence of preceding patterns. There was one question that showed a L-shape that looked like a Tetris block. It was divided into 4 squares – 3 down the main part of the body, and 1 for the short leg sticking out. There were 4 images of the shape, in different orientations. In one, it looked like an L. In another, it looked like an L lying down. The shading of the internal squares changed from step to step. The question was to pick the next configuration in the series, from a set of 4 options.

There were tons of questions like this. It seemed like half the questions on the test involved some kind of pattern recognition and pattern matching. And I would learn latter that this was the skill that ran very strong in the cadre of the elite. We could pattern match like beasts.

This question tests the complete opposite of creativity. In fact, to understand it, to see the pattern, you have to leave your creative impulses at the door. Your job is not to let your imagination run wild, or concept an idea of what you think you see in the pattern. It’s to suppress your individual imagination, and see instead what someone else – what the person who wrote the question – was thinking when they posed it.

Pattern matching squelches the openness of imagination, the critique-free world of creativity, which can really only be measured by the complexity and originality of the idea. Individuality is a liability in pattern-matching. Your subjective opinion will stop you from seeing the intended pattern, the one that is “objectively” correct.

That does not mean it’s a useless skill. In fact, it’s one of the most important skills you can have if you want to excel in the corporate world. At the highest levels, decisions are made in conference rooms by appeals to pre-existing patterns. “This is a supply and demand problem.” “That is a sunk cost fallacy.” “We should decide action items according to the prioritizations we’ve assigned.” Just like the IQ tests, in the corporate world there is no space for creativity, but only conformity.

And that ultimately is the point of these tests. Do you conform to the mechanical standards and expectations for intelligence that we have in the modern world? These are the abilities to ingest knowledge, techniques, and patterns, and apply them to the world around you, in the way that you’ve been taught, without asking questions beyond clarifications on “how” to do things, but never “why”.

Why was my life separated from the rest of my friends, why were they left behind, why was I given more attention and resources and praise, because I could tell the next shape in someone else’s pattern? It didn’t mean that I was a better person. It didn’t say anything about whether I was conscientious, well-intentioned, empathetic, artistic, creative. I could have been a sociopath and done absolutely well on that test. In fact, given how removed the questions are from emotions or interpersonal skills, you would probably do better on IQ tests if you were a sociopath.

Of course, I didn’t ask those questions back then. What I had to believe – what I needed to believe – was that the system worked as intended. That it was objective and accurate. That what it measured was something resembling the truth. That I was deemed special, because I was indeed, demonstrably, objectively special.

The only way to make the Kool-Aid work was to drink it. And so I did, down to the very last drop.