Søren Kierkegaard at 3 AM, or, How I Passed the LEED for Neighborhood Development Professional Accreditation Exam
"The truth is a trap: you can not get it without it getting you; you cannot get the truth by capturing it, only by its capturing you." - Søren Kierkegaard, Journal Entry, 1854.
Sometimes when I can’t sleep I pick up my “Journals and Letters of Søren Kierkegaard.” He is my favorite philosopher. I can’t necessarily say that he has written my favorite books on philosophy (it’s difficult to top the beautiful mind food found within Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason,” or the gloomy appeal of Sartre and his avid solipsism, or Neitzsche’s elegant and sometimes mean-spirited logic in “Ecce Homo” and “The Twilight of the Idols.”) Nevertheless, Kierkegaard remains my favorite, the best loved, which is why I adore the intimacy of his “Journals and Letters.” His inner conflict over his theology, his interpersonal relationships, his vehement and often passionate expression of the collection of ideas that eventually won him the title Father of Existentialism, all make him the most human of the philosophers. I admire his doubt, his confusion, and his brilliant articulation of the train of thought (rather than presenting his reader only with an ostentatious display of philosophic conclusion, as Kant was used to do).
Kierkegaard, in fact, was very straightforward about his conviction that the only valid perspective on the world is that of subjectivity. There is such a thing as objective fact, truths that are common to us all and universal laws that can be applied across space and time, but these truths cannot be discovered or understood with any tools greater than the outer limits of the small and inherently biased human mind. “Subjectivity is Truth,” wrote Kierkegaard. “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” For him, there existed no worldly authority that could be trusted. Objective truths could not by themselves contribute meaning to human life. Meaning existed only within an interpersonal relationship to truth.
So, I’ve been studying for the LEED for Neighborhood Development exam this past month, and I passed the exam on March 29th. The exam consists of knowing the information contained in the U.S. Green Building Council’s elephantine Reference Guide for the Neighborhood Development rating system: about 600 pages of the concepts, calculations, referenced standards, and exhaustive instructions for professionals trying to achieve project certification for a neighborhood development. USGBC's reference guide covers major principles for sustainable community development, and the rating system awards points for high density in residential and nonresidential buildings, mixed income housing, mixed-use neighborhoods, energy efficient buildings and infrastructure, and for projects located on previously developed land and near public transit. There are a myriad of other factors, including urban agriculture, habitat conservation, and even criteria concerning accessibility for the disabled.
Not only am I not terribly skilled at memorizing numbers, but, unlike the majority of folks who take a LEED AP exam, I have never worked in the building industry. I’ve mostly worked with communities to develop green infrastructure, through nonprofits, local park authorities, and small green engineering firms. I’m sure that someone who is good with numbers could pass simply by memorizing the entire quantity of factual information contained within the reference guide, but he or she would be spending roughly twice the amount of time necessary, and, in my opinion at least, memorizing exactly the kind of data that you can simply look up once you are on a LEED project team. Happily, as it turns out, Kierkegaard told me exactly how to pass this exam. None of the facts I was supposed to know for the exam had any meaning by themselves; once I understood the underlying reasons for the standards, point allocations, and specifications of the Neighborhood Development rating system, the details stuck relatively easily. I had to think like the authorities at USGBC, who came up with the rating system, to study successfully and pass.
Therefore, in the stressful week leading up to the exam, all the nights I couldn’t sleep and was up in the dark, reading my Kierkegaard, I was actually subconsciously hatching a plan to pass the exam. Subjectivity is Truth, and only through finding meaning that connects the facts can there be a real proficiency in the LEED rating systems. And it’s the kind of knowledge that sticks, too, instead of dissolving into disassociated numbers and words the minute the test is over. Pre-test anxiety is just another tool to use, if it can be understood as freedom to make the facts fit the story of how and why they have meaning. Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, and when your head stops spinning, you open your eyes and find success beyond your most distantly cherished wishes. It's true.