Saturday, July 23, 2011


For years, I've struggled with a condition known as Formaphobia. For those of you unfamiliar with more advanced topics in psychology, Formaphobia is the hyper-rational fear and loathing of all activities that require the completion of forms.

My first incident occurred in primary school...

I'm in third grade at Atlantic Elementary School in Colts Neck, NJ.

It's early spring. The air is cool and crisp.

The morning starts off normally enough. I ride the bus to school with my friend Jackie Jacoby. We debate the merits of our favorite television shows: Lost in Space and Batman. The bus drops us off ten-minutes early and I scan the playground to find the lone open seesaw. We assert ownership of it and continue our debate as we ride up and down.

The sun casts barely a shadow on the playground as we race to line up at the door in response to the school bell clanging. It's going to be a great day, or so I think...

Mrs Jarret calls the class to attention and announce that the next three days are going to be special. We'll all be participating in something called the California Achievement Tests. I have no idea what that means, but she did say "special", so I'm excited.

She then holds up a booklet and a computer card. She explains that the booklet contains questions that already have the answers written down. In fact, each question has five answers. All we have to do is pick the right one and then mark it on the card.

She shows us the card which contains rows numbers and little circles. Each row has a number corresponding to the question number in the book. Each of the circles contains a letter that corresponds to one of the answers.

Although this may sound quite simple now, I can still hear my heart pounding in my ears as my blood pressure rises, my mouthing moving as I silently repeat the instructions over and over.

By the time she explains that we MUST use a number-two pencil and that we MUST completely fill in the circle but not go outside the circle, my head is ready to explode. I don't even know what a number-two pencil is. How can I be sure if I have one. What if I go on the line? Is that in the circle or outside the circle? I thought this was gonna be such a great day. I thought this was supposed to be special.

I sit dazed and confused as Mrs. Jarret distributes booklets and cards, and then asks whether or not anyone needs a number-two pencil. I raise my hand. She walks back, looks at my desk and says, "Mark, you have a number-two pencil already. See, it's here on your desk."

Now I feel dazed, confused and stupid.

She looks up at the wall clock and says, "OK class, you have one hour to complete this first section. When I say begin, I want you to open your booklets and start filling in the circles. When I say 'Stop', I want you to immediately put down your pencils."

Immediately? Immediately sounds really serious. Immediately is the word my mom uses just before making the transition from verbal to physical. What have I got myself into.

"Alright class, begin."

I look down at the booklet and the card. OK, what did she say to do? I look around and see Jackie who's opened his booklet and is marking his card. He's smiling. He's happy. What the heck? Well, if Jackie (who believes that Lost in Space is better than Batman) can do this, I can.

I open my booklet and read the first question. I breathe a sigh of relief. I know this one.

I look at the list of answers and my relief vanishes. None of the answers is right! I mean, a couple are close, but they're inaccurate. I don't know how to pick.

As my classmates get the hang of filling the circles, their speed intensifies. Meanwhile, I'm still stuck on the first problem. I finally fill in a circle and move on.

Time passes. Jackie puts down his pencil and stretches, then Susan Cagle, then Judy Tsiang. I look the clock. Five minutes left. I've only completed four questions. I start racing through the booklet and finally opt for a pattern-based approach, i.e., I fill in the circles in a way that creates a nice cross diagonal pattern without reading the questions or answers.

I suddenly recall something Mrs. Jarret said about being penalized for wrong answers. I'm not sure what that means, but it sounds bad, so I desperately begin erasing.


I drop my pencil. It's the worst day of my life.

Over the years, I've learned coping mechanisms. I've come to realize that just because someone has created a test doesn't mean that they actually know what they're talking about and that the likelihood of form-answers being accurate can be low. I've also learned that the answers often have nothing to do with accuracy but instead are drawn from phrases presented in class. So, I've forgone trying to get the right answer and have opted for either the closest answer or the one that was taught.

I still have challenges with the multiple-selection answers, e.g., check all that apply. The other day I completed an online training for the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA); it's required training for all personnel in companies participating in overseas medical trials. I did fine until I got to the question: Which of the following would be considered a violation of the policy? Although the correct answer was fewer than all of them, I could see how any one of them would have been a violation. I squeaked through by only checking the answers I could recall having actually been stated in the training and not checking the ones that could be inferred from the training.

Oh well, you do the best you can. For me, that typically involves delegation. I delegate tax forms to my accountant, legal forms to my lawyer and, god bless her, other forms to Iris.

Do you have formaphobia? I was thinking of creating a support group. If not, are there any everyday tasks that others take in stride but you find particularly challenging?

Happy Saturday,

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