The Table

19 Oct 2013

Nobody else sees the funny side.

At the front of the lecture theatre, the slim woman giving the briefing has just answered my question with "You will have.. two and a half minutes". She's slightly confused at my incredulous look, intended to convey something between "rock and roll!" and "jesus, what?"

Her colleague, the spitting image of Jean-Luc Picard, doesn't react either. Both test administrators are clearly very bright but are spookily calm, methodical, and neutral. The Mensa exam is serious business, apparently.

(I worry that I've found another group of people who I like very much but who absolutely do not share my sense of humour).

I'm not here for any good reason. Even if successful, I may not join. Really, I'm in it for the ego points - I'm almost certain that I can do this and, right now, I'd rather like the gold star. Of course, that attitude makes this a high-stakes game.

There's a chorus of stopwatch beeps as she says "... now". My heart is thumping as I hit the second or third question and lose momentum, the answer not obvious to me. I was expecting this to be difficult, but not like this: it's happening too fast. Exams for me mean three-hour marathons of careful thinking, not interval sprints with seconds per question. My techniques and my training don't work here.

Taken by surprise, on the first round, I hadn't answered the last three questions at all. That's pure amateur hour. Just putting down 'A' for all three questions would've taken only a second and, statistically, gained me three quarters of a point.

We hit the last of six rounds, eighteen minutes for fifteen questions. One of them I recognise instantly; it's a substitution cipher and I'm expected to crack it, then decipher a second message. Instantly I know two things: 1) I can do this, and 2) it's going to take some time. After a few seconds I switch approach to do it half-assed; instead of cracking the whole cipher, I'll test each multiple-choice answer against one or two letters, invalidate them quickly, and go with what's left.

It works. By now it's dawning on me what this test is really looking for. I'm not expected to work things out. I'm expected to look at them and know. But I don't. The way I've always solved hard problems is by careful planning, followed by repeated and determined application of brute force of reason.

Formal results won't be available for a couple of weeks, but already, I'm not sure that this is the right place for me.

(Postscript: I scraped in.)