Is certification worth it?

IMG_3634I love pretending that there are tangible, truly objective ways to measure nebulous things like experience, intelligence, or aptitude. Formal schooling is all about this sort of thing, and my whole life has been instance after instance of trying to measure up to imposed standards, jumping through hoops, and earning letters after my name. My degrees make me feel like I’ve accomplished something, and they (theoretically) convey that accomplishment to other people in meaningful ways:

“Oh, wow, she went to college, like, four times. She can totally work a cash register. Let’s start her at $7.25 an hour.”

But as much as I love school (not even kidding) and as much as I believe in formal education and having agreed upon standards, I also know that no system is perfect. I have seen firsthand how SAT scores, grades, and degrees are not always reliable measures for competence, long-term performance, intelligence, and a lot of other things that we often take for granted. Working in academia quickly taught me that having a Ph.D. in the humanities is often only a reliable indicator of two things: your capacity for withstanding bullshit and how much money you have laying around. Bright students can flunk out, the incompetent can win praise, and countless others will never have the chance one way or the other simply because they have been arbitrarily denied access.

Formal education might be one of the better indicators of experience, ability, and potential that we have, but obviously it is a problematic system.

Tarot certification is much the same, on a smaller scale.

The first problem, of course, is that there is no universal standard for what makes a competent tarot reader, worthy of the client’s time and money. A university must earn accreditation through an external board of reviewers according to standards that are applied to all other universities of its type (and fork over a shit ton of money in the process). A tarot reader can only be measured according to the standards established by what is usually a private business (often owned by only one or two people) interested primarily in generating a profit (which is not a criticism—money is awesome—but let’s be honest).

There have been organizations in the past (such as the now defunct American Board for Tarot Certification) that have attempted to establish more objective standards for readers, awarding titles like “apprentice” and “master” and even “grandmaster,” but these often only guarantee that the so-titled has passed a series of online quizzes and essays, perhaps published in some capacity, or performed a certain number of readings (with testimonies provided by clients who could just as easily be conspiring friends). While these might be likely indicators of ability (like college), they are only surely indicators of free time (and, hopefully, professional commitment to tarot), expendable income (because there are fees all along the way), and perhaps writing and networking abilities. It does not guarantee the ability to give a great reading.

But I don’t want to sound like I’m totally nay-saying certification. I’m not.

Like formal schooling in other disciplines, determining whether or not they’ve undergone any kind of certification (or even just attended workshops or classes) is still a useful way for potential clients to gauge a reader’s experience. It doesn’t mean that they’re definitely going to be a better reader than someone who taught themselves and just works out of their tent at summer festivals, but it at least tells you that they’re committed enough to tarot to further their studies in a (usually) more rigorous ways.

It’s not a guarantee, but if this was a racetrack and you were placing bets, you’d be better off choosing the person with some kind formalized training. As a client, you still might lose in the end, but the odds are better.

As a reader, my own work with certification has been enormously beneficial. Studying with the Tarot School doesn’t make me a “certified” anything per se, but I do get to talk about fancy “degree” levels. Will it mean anything to a client that I’m working on a degree through Tarot School? Probably not. It usually doesn’t mean anything to other readers beyond HOLY SHIT THAT’S A LOT OF MONEY (correct, but thus far cheaper and with greater profit margins than my entire graduate career). But I’m a completely different sort of reader because of it, and my experience with and knowledge of tarot has developed to such an extent that I can hardly believe I ever thought myself competent beforehand.

Tarot School is quite a bit more academic than a lot of other available programs (not to mention longer), and absolutely will not appeal to everyone (nevermind the cost). There are a lot of others to choose from. The Tarosophy Tarot Association has about a dozen classes (including its own degree program) that I’d love to take, including a “Tarot Certificate” course. Biddy Tarot is another popular site (and, I believe, a sole proprietorship) that offers a kind of certification, though I can’t personally speak to the quality of the material (I know I’ve got some followers who can, though).

If you’re considering certification, my advice would be to go for it as long as it’s affordable. It’s certainly possible to be successful without it, and it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be a better reader. But you probably will be. It demonstrates seriousness to potential clients, helps you to meet others, hopefully challenges you to consider things in a different light, and will almost surely make you more confident.

How to read for yourself

photo-1For the most part, I avoid doing readings for myself. I might pull a single card to consider at the beginning of each day, use particular images in ritual or meditation, or throw something down for the hell of it, but it’s pretty rare that I do a serious spread for myself. There are a lot of reasons for this. Mainly, it’s because I’m really good at lying to myself and seeing what I want to see. I’m equally good at having anxiety attacks when I think I might see something that I don’t want to see AND WHAT IF THAT’S REALLY WHAT’S GOING ON OH GOD.

I know that a lot of other readers—at all levels—are the same way, so I wanted to share some techniques for doing more useful, accurate readings when you are your own querent. I’ve found the following to be enormously helpful in those rare moments when I just have to pull for myself:

Draw fewer cards.

The fewer cards the better. This is its own blog post, but I’m adamant that any one card can thoroughly answer any question. It is beyond me why people think they need the Celtic cross spread for everything. There’s already a gazillion things (that you’ve never noticed) going on in any one card—you don’t need ten. Ten just gives you more opportunity to lie to yourself or get confused. When I do readings at events or for people I don’t know, I often do larger spreads because I find that that’s what people except (and they have their place). No one wants to accept that I could have given them essentially the same answer with only one or two cards (try it some time—you certainly can). There are particular kinds of strategies that help to make large spreads more meaningful than small ones, but most of us are not nearly self-aware enough to employ them on ourselves. When we don’t have an outside, objective(ish) ear for our inner monologues (like another tarot reader), it’s easy to read too much into a stack of cards.

Don’t ask for answers that you don’t want.

This is actually my policy at all times, whether or not tarot is involved. If you don’t really want to know, don’t ask. Don’t ask me how my day was if you aren’t prepared for me to start sobbing inconsolably (etcetera).  Sometimes, you will be sorrier for knowing. I suppose it depends on your personality, but my experience has been that there is information out there in the world (especially about other people) that I just don’t want. I don’t want to know if my high school bully is still better than me at everything. I don’t want to know if my first boyfriend really was cheating on me back in college. I don’t want to know whether or not my current partner really thinks I’m the prettiest girl in the room. I also don’t want to know when and how I’m going to die, whether or not I’ll ever objectively serve any kind of real purpose in life, or how many people in my social circle secretly hate me.

I don’t want answers to any of the above because the answers might upset me and knowing wouldn’t really serve me in any useful way, anyway (except for maybe the death question, because I might just say “fuck it all” and buy a speedboat). You might be different. Maybe it’s really critical to you that you know if your wife actually thinks that you’re the sexiest man alive. But if you ask, be willing to accept that the answer is no.

Don’t do multiple readings concerning the same question.

This is usually related to the point above. Often, if we’re doing multiple readings in close proximity regarding the same issue, we’re just fueling some kind of anxiety and looking for the answers that we want to hear. Don’t just draw cards until the 9 of Cups shows up (come on we’ve all been there). At best, it’ll be confusing. At worst, you’ll give yourself a panic attack while concocting worse-case scenarios and unrealistic fantasies (and not actually do anything tangible about the situation).

In a yes/no scenario, go with your very first impulse.

There’s a fair chance that you already know the answer to whatever yes/no question you’re asking. I’ve found that often what people are really looking for is confirmation. In situations where I just want a quick answer, it helps me to not overanalyze or argue with myself based on obscure bits of card imagery (“Well this COULD be a yes if I squint really hard and consult this book on Qabalah…”). Whether you believe the tarot works via psychic powers or subconscious information triggered through image recognition, your lizard brain impulse is most likely to be the correct one.