The most important lesson I have ever learned taught me how to fail. This was not an easy lesson to learn, in fact it is one that I successfully avoided for thirteen years.
The first time I failed it was because I had grown complacent in my success. I had let my effort slacken ever so slightly. The first semester of my second year of university was a stressful one, packed with classes which all demanded great amounts of my energy and attention. The workload, compared to the year before, was greater and steadily increased with each passing day resulting in many late nights and group work which was fundamentally frustrating to the spirit. The midterm schedule of this semester was at best hectic and at worst hellish; I still remember my roommates and I completing the last one (of the first round of midterms) and laughing hysterically with relief for a good five minutes.
Despite these challenges I felt strongly that I was on top of most of my courses and would have no problems passing all of my classes come December. I had felt the workload increase but what I did not realize was that my work ethic had declined.
In other words I did not take a big enough running start to clear the latest pit.
The pit was Engineering Systems Analysis.
I knew what my result in that course would be walking out of the exam. I felt angry and ashamed and then I felt nothing as I drank those feelings and the rest of that semester away. The holiday break started and I forgot about my troubles amongst friends and family and food. My older brother was home for the holidays and nothing could sour my mood. And then the marks for the semester were officially released and I was reminded again of my failure right before Christmas Eve.
I avoided social media for a while after that. My shame would not let me interact with friends who had passed the course, who had passed me. It took me a few days before I was able to electronically face my friends and peers and that was when I learned my first lesson:
Everybody screws up every now and then.
I was not alone amongst my classmates; the number of us who had not succeeded in passing that final was enough to fill a small lecture hall. Furthermore, none of our colleagues were laughing at us for not passing, none of them were happy that we were not advancing with them. These people were our friends and it was psychotic to think, even on a subconscious level, that failing one notoriously difficult class would change that. The same went for my parents when I broke the news to them that I would have to repeat a course and that it would therefore take me an extra year to graduate. I saw the disappointment in their eyes of course but I only then realized that the person who was most disappointed was myself.
I was disappointed in myself because I realized that I had let my effort and zeal for school diminish. This would have to change next semester and luckily I would be getting a second crack at Systems sooner than I had anticipated.
And so, in winter semester, with a new sense of resolve and some understanding of what was to come I tried again.
And I failed. Again.
The second time around I was shocked. How could I have failed this time? I worked so hard. I studied the material properly this time. I made sure I went into the exam prepared. I thought I had done everything necessary to pass.
Even worse was the fact that systems was not alone this time. Two other courses, Fluid Mechanics and Kinematics and Dynamics, decided to make a ménage a trois of failure and shame. This time I delayed speaking to my parents about the issue for almost two weeks. How could I mess up like this again? They were putting me through school so that I would graduate debt free and here I was wasting their money.
I became angry at everything and I blamed everyone for my lack of success in the course. I blamed my professors, I blamed my roommates, I blamed my family, I blamed the material but most of all I blamed myself. I had done everything to pass and yet I had let myself down. And then I realized:
I was studying to pass these courses when I should have been studying to understand the material.
Ask anybody in my program and they will tell you that engineering is hard but that there is no other subject they would rather be studying. We are putting ourselves through these torturous four plus years because it is our passion to understand how the world works and apply that knowledge to problem solving.
Not only that but we are paying an exorbitant amount of money to be given the opportunity to learn from some of the best in our field and to have access to some of the best equipment on which to investigate, develop and apply our skills. Working only to pass these courses is a disservice to ourselves only exceeded by cheating.
Summer came. I worked a full time temp position. I took two electives and did quite well in them. I spent time with family and friends and exercised and indulged in my passion for film and television. Then summer went but it left me feeling thoroughly recharged.
The next semester I buckled down and got back to work. I remembered why I enrolled in the first place. I remembered why I was able to do so well in elementary and high school. Academically it was my best semester of education since I left high school.
Today I am less afraid of making mistakes.
This is not to say that I look forward to bad grades or that I am content in the face of a poor evaluation but rather I now see these disappointing events as opportunities to learn and to climb out the pit better, stronger, smarter and more determined than ever to succeed.
This is because that is exactly what failure is. It is an opportunity to take a step back, identify your weaknesses and turn them into strengths. It is a chance to identify your life’s problems and look for solutions. Failure shows you what does and does not work and helps you evaluate what is and is not important. It is proof that we are all capable of great defeats and great victories even if we are battling different demons. It universally equalizes us and humbles us while pushing us towards self-empowerment.
I still sometimes wish that I had succeeded on my first attempt in Systems and that I had kept pace with my friends and maintained my five-year plan without any alterations but I am also glad that I learned my lesson when I did. I truly believe that it has made me a better engineer and a better student.