During our recent house move I dug out some old primary school reports. To be honest I was both amused and horrified; I certainly was no ‘all-star’ pupil! Horrified though, at the harsh undertones of these old reports. The front leaf ranked your performance across the year group and each individual subject ranked you in that discipline (and we were only 7 or 8 years old).
There were many anecdotes I could share with you (and lots of 29th out of 30). Perhaps the best encompassing comment was, “I am afraid William did not make a very good showing on the exams, continuing with the downward trend of previous exams.”
I have been stewing on this theme of ‘ranking’ ever since. It struck me how normalised ranking has become in our lives. We are ranked and then we learn to rank ourselves and others for a lifetime, to the massive detriment of our mental health. Everything gets reduced into a ‘better than/worse than’ category. If we are honest, it’s more likely to be a ‘worse than’.
Ranking feels legitimate, objective and true. It seems to offer a sort of order to life, putting everything into the ‘right’ position on a chart of success. But ranking is a lie, and it is making us sick. In my coaching practice, I constantly come up against the malign power of ‘ranking’ which leaves, even the most materially successful people, feeling like complete failures.
The truth about ranking is that it can only tell you how you did within a tiny field of assessment. You might have come last on your year 3 Maths test, but that does not mean that you are last in life. The trouble with ranking is that it gets caught up with our already hyper-sensitised social estimator (sociometer) and becomes the legitimator of our intrapersonal hostility.
The bitter irony of ranking is that nobody benefits. I have coached people who have imbibed the pressure to stay at the top, those who feel perpetually average and those who think that they will never make it off the bottom rung. How they first felt ranked, nearly always echoes into their self-estimation today. Personally, I find that the term ‘disappointing’ still plagues me (something that was a regular feature of my early school reports). A friend was pointing out how ironic that seemed to them, since I ended up getting a couple of good degrees and writing a few good books. (I know I still struggle with ranking because writing ‘good’ in the sentence above felt hard.)
Where do we go from here? Well, the first thing is to reveal the misplaced power that early ranking experiences have over us. Even if you went to a more accepting school, you may have been ranked by parents, or peers. It’s helpful to recognise that feeling of inferiority or ‘not matching up’ often have their roots in our history, which then enables us to be more curious (and less convinced) when these feelings come up.
Having a Christian faith is also helpful in the face of ranking: God loves all his children equally; grace is a gift, not something earned through merit. If we can let grace really seep into our hearts and minds, it goes a long way to disarm the power of ranking.
What does the Bible say?
I find what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:12 really helpful when people started trying to rank him: “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.” We have to actually make a heart decision to stand against ranking ourselves and others - we need to find a more generous way of seeing things. Paul goes on to say, “We will confine our boasting to the field God has assigned to us.” Which is permission to say what went well.
As we approach Christmas week, with new Covid restrictions coming into force, and potentially tense family gatherings in the diary, there is going to be a lot of scope for ranking: What went better last time, who didn’t join in, which presents were best, who is being the most irresponsible etc. Ranking may feel natural, but it isn’t helpful. We all carry a bias to the negative but we can choose something better, we can choose to boast in the field God has assigned to us.
(I feel like I might be saying a lot more about ranking in the year ahead so bear with these early thoughts.)
I wish you all a very Happy Christmas
Will Van Der Hart, 16/12/2021