Here we have a boy whose special quirk is that on every test, exam or other numerical evaluation he's ever been subject to, he unfailingly scores exactly sixty percent.
The early manifestations go largely unnoticed. His mother is a perfectly fine mother, but she is not overly invested in picking through reams of developmental data. Had she been, however, she would have seen that the boy's first, second and third words each occurred dead-on the sixtieth percentile for age. For other cognitive milestones it's the same deal. Conversational cooing, his first smile, his first laugh, learning to wave hello and goodbye. All arrive just slightly quicker than average, consistently so.
In fact, it's the boy himself who gets the very first inklings. He does so in the middle stages of primary school, by which time the curriculum has progressed from finger painting and scheduled nap times to something with a more quantitative, competitive flavour. Tests of mental arithmetic are ramping up in frequency, and each time they're marked out of 10 or 20, meaning he always gets 6 or 12. It's a spottable pattern. He notices, too, a uniformly lukewarm tone to the feedback his teacher leaves on his work, even when the work isn't numerically graded. More than once he sees a desultory 'Excellent effort' scribbled in the margins of his homework projects, and what this seems to mean is: you're doing fine, but you're not doing great.
Still, he doesn't really care. The boy has more pressing concerns. He has video games to play, after-school clubs to attend, nascent friendships to suss out and sustain. Tests do not matter. Tests are not at this stage a big contributor to the boy's burgeoning identity. This will change.
He enters secondary school. He takes, as all the new students do, a battery of tests intended to inform his placement in one of several performance-stratified sets. The tests are not advertised as being a big deal. They are inserted somewhat nonchalantly into his usual English, Maths and Science lessons, these being the subjects where, in the opinion of the examination body that devised the tests, early potential is easiest to discern. Each test produces a straightforward percentage grade. You can guess what happens next. The boy will later revisit the sight of those three crisp sixties, delivered via black and white printout sheathed within a stiff manila envelope, in a dream that is to reoccur on and off throughout his life.
Seeing the sixties stack up term by successive term, the boy grows increasingly uneasy. He begins to read deeply into statistics. He gains a familiarity with discrete probability that extends far beyond what is normal for his educational level. Through a series of complex calculations he determines that the likelihood of these results being due to chance is so small as to be practically impossible. Then he takes his statistics exam and gets sixty on it. He cultivates, too, an interest in Classics, becomes obsessed with ancient Greek notions of fate. How the three fates spin the thread of life and snip it away at its end. How Oedipus kills his father anyway, by mistake, after being abandoned as a child in an attempt to defeat that very prophecy. How 'free will', if it exists at all, exists only within the boundaries of predetermined constraints. How – and this is the kicker – any attempt to subvert or otherwise alter one's destiny only ever leads to the fulfilment of that destiny. These are heavy, existential topics for a boy only just turning 12.
Disheartenment, then, is nothing if not an understandable response. The boy becomes lazy. He stares out the window in lessons, converts his textbooks into obscene sketchbooks, asks nonsense questions of his teachers out of sheer deranged boredom. His behaviour never fully crosses the line because he's so good at toeing the line – or rather, he toes the line without even trying to, it just happens. This goes on for his entire secondary-school career. Even when he's at his most reckless, he escapes penalty. He turns up late to almost all of his final exams, answers whatever questions he feels like and defaces the rest of the paper. He stares down the patrolling invigilators until they redirect their circuits to avoid his desk. He knows none of it will make even the slightest difference. And of course, it doesn't: sixty, sixty, sixty, sixty, sixty.
Strangely enough, he retains a desire to continue on to higher education. His teachers struggle to understand why this is, seeing on a day to day basis his blasé attitude towards his studies. Even the boy himself has difficulties pinning down his precise motivations. All he knows is he's addicted to fresh starts. Part of him believes a change in circumstances will liberate him from his condition. And so he's pleased to receive offers from decent red-brick establishments whose reputations in recent years have steadily been on the rise. Most reject him when he undershoots his target grades (as he knew he would), but one university upholds the offer, citing a fallow year for applications. The only difference is he has to study Sociology rather than History, which – and he doesn't know why – somehow feels like a better fit.
When he arrives on campus, he can't help it, hope gets the better of him. He sincerely tries. He turns up early for every lecture and lingers afterwards as long as he can, interrogating his lecturers with elaborate lists of pre-prepared questions. Daily he produces mind maps and flow charts, endless notes which he colour-codes and categorises in bulging ring binders. He mocks up exam questions and war games them out, drafts potential answers, evaluates them on their adherence to the syllabus and capacity to surprise and delight. And then he scours the internet for similarly pitched essays to reassure himself that the arguments he's put forth are entirely his own. He pulls academics into lengthy email exchanges to split hairs over ambiguities in their published work, and mainly they're polite about it but one or two not, and yet unabated he continues, hounding them until he's satisfied his understanding is equal to theirs. He sets himself schedules and sticks to them fanatically. He screens social events for academic relevance, then attends none of them anyway, opting instead to stay at home – goblin mode – and swell his personal library of accumulated revision notes.
He takes his first round of exams. He waits. The day of reckoning comes. He gets sixty percent on everything. And what follows isn't exactly a breakdown, or at least it's not outwardly identifiable as one. It's more a dramatic readjustment of priorities. Education, he decides, is not for him. He comes to accept the benefits of his peculiar talent. Wouldn't others in his position kill for the chance to put forth zero effort yet still achieve solid results? So the boy, though at this point he's a man rather than a boy, changes up his mindset once again. He explores the hedonistic possibilities student life has to offer. The clubs, the parties, the terrible sex, the under-strength drugs. He finds it all to be basically okay. He gets good at getting hangovers and though they're hardly pleasant, they're maybe a six out of ten on the hangover scale. He gets a girlfriend and the two of them get along well enough, she's maybe a – well, you get the idea.
It turns out that a scraped 2:1 is more than enough to secure an entry-level job in recruitment. The spec says his responsibilities will be diverse and challenging. What he mostly does is print out CVs, underline the parts that seem relevant and add them to either the big pile or the small pile. The rest of time he spends dealing with the admin this process has generated. He schedules interviews with shortlisted candidates, lets the unsuccessful ones down gently via polite email, phonecall or voice message. He updates job listings and recolours cells on the corresponding spreadsheets. He clocks in at 9 and out at 5.30.
There comes a day when his manager summons him to the conference room, tells him there's been a minor update in company process. All employees are now to take a new kind of standardised assessment as part of their annual performance review. Previously the approach had been 'feedback-led', his boss explains, but now they've opted to update to what he calls a more 'numerical type system'. The boss wants to know if there are any questions or queries that he'd like to bring to the table.
'It's okay,' our hero replies, leaning back in his chair. 'I think I know the score.' And it's true. He literally does know the score. He's accustomed, now, to the precise size of the gap between what he is and what he could be – except, of course, he knows he can't be what he could be, and he can only be what he is. There's no shock or novelty or rage or bitterness attached to the idea of a life lived within unnegotiable confines. It's just reality. There's nothing he could do about it, even if he wanted to.
So his eyes glaze and the room, which is already a sludgy, indeterminate colour, takes on an additional gauzy quality; it goes out of focus, becomes fuzzy. He stares at the ceiling and his manager's silhouette comes to rest in the lower half of his vision. He exhales a little less than two thirds of the air in his lungs.
He thinks: fine. This is pretty much fine.