On failure, academics, and real life
March 27, 2017
I was an Honors and AP student in high school. I passed enough AP credits to skip half my freshman year of college, at $75 a pop, and it might have been more except my college only took several credits. On the old style SATs, I scored something like 1450. 1540? 1450? I can’t remember now but back then, academics were kind of Important.
My great shame that I’d hidden forevermore, until today, was that I failed at something. It wasn’t just a little thing, like a midterm or a final, either. Though in retrospect, calling a midterm or final something little says quite a lot about how far I’ve come since those testing days.
I did so poorly in my Honors math class sophomore year, failing week after week to grasp the materials at the pace that others were absorbing it, that I dropped out of the Honors track for math. Correction: I was dropped. That wasn’t my choice, though it would have been the wisest thing I did had I made the choice.
Miraculously, the world never stopped turning. This was in part because I hid it from my parents. This is the biggest secret I’d kept from them up until after college when I hid the extent of my illness from them – I hid my report cards and let them think that everything was fine at school. This worked because they trusted me, my sibling was a far greater worry to them so they assumed they could continue to trust me, and I didn’t flip out and overcompensate.
I failed. That royally sucked. It was humiliating to slink back into a lower track math class. And if you believe all the teen-pop movies, that’s the worst thing in the world. It felt like it, anyway.
Then I remembered that I had friends in those classes too and no one thought less of them. Absolutely no one cared if I wasn’t competing with them for the number one slot at the top of our graduating class.
This is where lack of constant parental pressure was key – I don’t know how I’d have reacted if my parents were pressuring me and judging me for not excelling. There have been times when I wished that they had, but by and large I’m almost certain that the fact they didn’t only helped me grow my own intrinsic motivation.
The lesson I took away at first was that there was safety in mediocrity. And that wasn’t completely wrong. But the important lessons were: there are always people smarter than you, working harder isn’t always the answer, and most failure won’t kill you unless you let it.
I could have started drinking and doing drugs to mask the pain. Apparently the latter was readily available at our school though I learned much too late for it to do any good! Some overachievers of my acquaintance took failure that badly, flunking out and quitting college entirely because they had no idea how to deal with failure. Instead, I dusted myself off and got back to work. I didn’t have to mask the pain, I could let go of it.
No one said a thing. It probably helped that they all knew I’d make mincemeat of them if they mocked me but I’m sure it had a lot more to do with people being people: people pay far less attention to you than you think they do. I didn’t lose any friends over this stumble. My friends were academically gifted, naturally smart, and just not that shallow.
Looking back, now, I’m grateful that I failed in exactly that way.
I made mistakes that couldn’t be denied, suffered consequences, accepted the consequences, and worked my way to graduation without further mishap. That my parents didn’t get involved was likely a good thing, their reaction wasn’t predictable since my failure would have been considered a betrayal of their trust on so many levels. But their lack of involvement helped me learn how to navigate a failure long before it did true harm. I didn’t have Ivy League aspirations or it would have much more devastating, but since a state school of one kind or another was what we could afford, the blow was a glancing one at best.
In real life, this ability to recognize and rectify failure, and to work hard even if I didn’t have the raw or native talent, served me incredibly well. I might have done well at a tougher college, but I doubt it. At a certain point, my academic smarts plateaued and my life smarts improved exponentially. There’s still a step or three between me and that CEO title, but I’m not just dreaming airy castles in the sky when I consider the possibility of starting my own business.