I was one of those kids who was good at school, especially at tests. I always had the right answer, and I felt good about that. I got lots of positive reinforcement from gold stars and smiley faces at the top of my paper and it worked on me just like on Pavlov’s dog: I still love being Right, and I hate being Wrong. To this day, being Right fills me with sunshine and rainbows. On the other hand, I sometimes get this horrible sick feeling and something a little like brain freeze for a second or two when I realize that I have done/said something Wrong, Wrong, Wrong.

This is not a mindset that is well-suited for consular work (or, let’s be honest here, adult life in general). At the end of every visa interview I have made a choice – yes, or no. The applicant goes away happy or sad and that’s pretty much it as far as I’m concerned. I made a decision – was it Right? Who knows? Most likely I’ll never find out. There’s no teacher to pass back the exam, no answers in the back of the book. No one pulls back a curtain to show me if there’s a car or a goat on the other side. I just make the best decision I can and move on to the next one. 

On some decisions I never can know if I was Right or not: if I decide not to issue a visa no one can ever know if the applicant would have used it responsibly or not, because he didn’t get the chance. Have I denied visas to people who would have been good issuances? Almost certainly. And I feel bad about those, in a general sort of way, though I’ll never know who they were. 

Most of the time I never know if my issuances were Right or not either; they pick up their visa and I never see them again. But sometimes, every once in a while, word filters back that one of my many decisions was, in fact Wrong. I learned recently that I gave a visa to someone early in my consular tenure and that person never came back. I’m sure this person isn’t the only one. I may have been Wrong dozens of times and just never found out. But there’s something about having a specific concrete example of Wrong that’s infinitely more crushing than all the amorphous hypothetical Wrong you can throw at me. I do not like this at all.