Or certifications, if you’re into complete words.  I’m in a multi-year process of taking exams for my professional registration.  My friends are aware of my struggle, so when a buddy asked me recently how my “certs” were going, it made me think on the way we’re wired to chase these paper laurels.

My friend is military, and has retained a lot of the truncated lingo.  There’s something I appreciate about the military’s creativity in turning anything into an acronym or a shortcut.  Military life, and by extension military jargon, is very supportive of hierarchal language.  There’s a short, unambiguous word for each rung of the command ladder—Private, Colonel, General, etc.  There’s an extraordinary amount of definition and meaning applied to one’s place in the system.

In the private world, we’re much more chaotic, but we devote enormous effort into sorting ourselves into the social strata.  The terminology can be militaristically definitive (Socioeconomic status, or S.E.S. comes to mind), but it’s not applied as a matter of course to our social interactions as rigidly as a Captain may apply his command over a Private.  Additionally, our pursuit of registration, rank, and certification isn’t directly tied directly to our standing or income—Lawyers are a highly accredited bunch, but we like to crack jokes at their expense.  Likewise, the requirements for becoming a teacher are rigorous but a teacher may not see the same economic returns or social recognition as a rags-to-riches real estate mogul with little formal education.

My suspicion is that the pursuit of registration and certification is tied to forces more internal than external.  In 1978, Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes coined the term “imposter syndrome”— an internal feeling of being a fraud despite an outward competence in a skill or profession.  Certification, in addition to acting as a regulatory mechanism for state oversight of sensitive professions, acts as a panacea for our need for internal identity and nomenclature.  I may not want to exercise a militaristic authority over anyone, but it’s nice to know that I can call myself a licensed plumber or interior designer.

And admittedly, the quest for professional certification can’t be boiled down directly into a search for identity.  There is a world full of CPAs and Welders who sought accreditation to put food on the table.  The urge is there, though, and we can see it clearly if we look into other facets of the human experience.

In simple terms, people like to level up.  In simpler terms, people like to know that they’ve leveled up, and for others to know it too.  Video game creators know this.  Most games feature some kind of collecting mechanism—‘1000 sonic gems for a custom emote!’, and devout gamers (like me) will spend hours obtaining even superfluous gear and badges simply for the sense of accomplishment.

With games, we can see the goalposts.  You need 14,500 experience points to get to level 9.  With certifications, it’s much the same: 6 night classes and 500 hours of on-job training, and you’re a certified welder.  And yeah, there are rewards.  You might get +5 charisma points or +$3200 income, or you might get the ability to legally weld things to other things.  But then there’s always level 10, or the ability to weld things to even more things, or that $2400 pay bump.

We’ve finely graded our life experience to smaller and more accurate taxonomies, and we’ve developed increasingly complicated methods of tracking our metrics.  We’re measuring the length and quality of our sleep, we’re testing the genes of our babies, we’re measuring miles per gallon, nutritional values, social media reach.  We track ourselves as if we’re creating our own baseball cards, complete with RBIs and batting averages.  We examine ourselves the way an advertiser or a doctor might, attempting to tease out trends and truths about ourselves.  Why?  Are we looking to better ourselves?  Are we looking to see if our self-perception matches reality?  Are we hoping that science and statistics might tell us something about ourselves?

At the end of the day, the world is ever-full of dragons to slay, S.E.S.’s to climb, social media to dominate, and evil overlords to defeat.  Nothing wrong with it, but in our never-ending quest to quantify, slay, level up, and validate, it’s maybe a good idea to hit the pause button, release the controller and drift off into reality, where our socially-constructed MMORPG* is meaningless in the face of a nice scented candle.  Maybe swing out to the local park for a walk.

Just make sure to log the walk on your fitbit for the insurance points and maybe beat your time from last week so you can run that 5k you’ve always talked about doing.  And be sure to get some photos for social media so your aunt won’t think you’re a layabout.


Billy Boyd

Character level: 6th (Wizard)—HP: 45, OFF:12 DEF: 14 MAG: 16

Fitbit Statistics (January ##, 20##): 1925 steps, 5 floors, 1463 calories burned.  5hr, 5 min sleep.  Daily Fitness Classification: Potato

Alma Mater: College College, General Studies and Pedantry

*Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (See: World of Warcraft or talk to your nephew.)