New Year Series Part 3: Overcoming Failure

This is part 3 of my New Year series, a trilogy of posts about 2017. This final essay is about failure and how reorienting one’s attitude on making mistakes can lead to growth. This is about looking back in order to move forward. 

~~~

nico

Have you checked your grades on Blackboard yet?

I didn’t check them until the very last day before the second term started. I didn’t because I knew I had done poorly in one class, worse than I thought, and I didn’t want that confirmed.

All my life I’ve been terrified of making mistakes. I think it started when my old school district (LAUSD) implemented the Gifted Program, where they would single out high-achieving students as early as third grade and provide them with accelerated curricula and more time with teachers. As an eight year old, I wasn’t cognizant of this differentiation between “Gifted” and non-“Gifted” students, I just thought my teacher was giving a few of us more to read.

But then the language changed. In middle school, my school would call these advanced classes, “Honors” classes. Then in high school, they mixed that in with Advanced Placement courses, which had end-of-the-year exams that, if successful, one could earn college (university) credit.

Though I wasn’t righteous about my advanced placement in school, I was affected psychologically in a subtle way: I was afraid of making mistakes. I wasn’t comfortable with errors, because in such a competitive academic climate, there was no room for mistakes…

…And now we’re back to sweaty palms, sweaty everything, waiting for Blackboard to load. I have a pillow scrunched up in my middle. I’m rocking back and forth on my bed, legs crossed. The sun has set, but the vestiges of the orange and pink still linger west; the only source of light is my laptop screen’s full brightness, harsh in my frantic eyes and darkened room. And there it is. My not-so-good final mark.

I slam my laptop shut, just missing my fingers. I fall back into my pillow. I curl into a fragile ball. Happy new year.

~~~

I asked some fellow UTM first-years about their views on failure and how they deal with making mistakes.

Art and art history student, Vidhi, takes onus when it comes to shortcomings: “To me, it means that I did not put my best foot forward.” To her it means that the reason for failure starts with her and her actions first, an admirable starting point. She continues to say that there is all the opportunity to do well, but missteps happen when she only chooses to do something halfheartedly.

A History student Mrinalini, riffs off of the same vein of accountability: “It’s the inability to reach your full potential despite having all the resources…It is the result of not being realistic and overestimating your own abilities.” Sometimes failure can be because of a certain arrogance, what she says as “setting goals you know you won’t be able to meet”, which is something I am guilty of as well. I get too ambitious in my own abilities, too wrapped up in this idea of being the precocious youth.

To Andriana, a political science student, failure means that there is still much to learn. She also recognizes the privilege she has in being able to afford mistakes: “Whenever I make mistakes or I ‘fail’ at something, they [her parents] always tell me that I’m lucky to have been given this new learning experience.” 

In dealing with failures, both all three do their best to learn from past experiences. Vidhi says that she “lets these mistakes and failures fuel [her] to do better next time.” Mrinalini admits though that moving on can be difficult and finds that “the easiest way to deal with a mistake is by distracting yourself and then over time you will forget it and move on.” Andriana credits failures as the impetus to self-evaluation. In practice, I veer towards the Mrinalini’s outlook because of the fact that mistakes to me are monumental–I blow them out of proportion, an unhealthy mindset.

~

make-mistakes-neil

Though it felt like it, after unfurling myself from my own pity party, I see that the world hasn’t ended. My grades were just numbers in some cloud, something to move on from now that new classes have begun. I feel reinvigorated with a new fervour to learn, not to wear myself thin at the thought of getting A’s. I’m not sure if I’m there yet, but in time, I believe I will see past mistakes not as failures, but steps that faltered and nonetheless brought me forward.

Like a chipped cup, I would toss myself out, neglecting to see further use in something damaged. However, like the Japanese art of kintsugi, I will learn to rebuild myself this year. I will gather my jagged ceramic and piece them back together with gold optimism.

Because mistakes mean growth, wisdom.  Because perfection is impossible. The more you try to get closer to what can’t be touched, the more hatred and disappointment will lash back at you. So reorient yourself (that’s right, I’m talking to myself specifically here!!). Perfection should not be the aim; it’s too cruel, too boring, too utilitarian a goal.

As Neil Gaiman said in his now-classic commencement address at the University of the Arts in 2012:

Make new mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.

And in them, you and I will find a way to live more mindfully, to grow more beautifully, and to act more kindly, especially to ourselves.

How do you deal with making mistakes? How would you like to change your attitude this year?

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