The deep importance of learning to accept failure
I began my freshman year in college the same way I’d spent many years in high school. I knew I was smart, I knew I was competent, and I knew how to get a decent grade. I spent the first two years of my time in university as a resident of the Dean’s List each semester. My grades were high enough to garner me an academic scholarship. When I transferred schools just before my junior year, it was with the hope of being more academically challenged, and I fully believed I would succeed.
And then, as it so often does, life happened. A series of traumatic events completely derailed everything. It wasn’t easy for me to talk about, and in fact, very few people knew what I was going through, but because of this huge change in my life, I was a wreck. I had always suffered from depression, but at mostly manageable levels. The chaos triggered a major depressive episode, one that almost incapacitated me. I started skipping class, too heartbroken to get out of bed. I called in sick to work. I told myself I would be able to catch up, but as time wound on, my encouragements seemed even more fragile. How could I go to class, write this paper, and do well at my job if everything around me felt destroyed?
Eventually, I faced a reckoning. Out of my full course load, I failed almost every class. I sat in meetings with the dean, the one whose academic achievements board I was used to being on. I worried about losing my academic scholarship, the one that made me going to school possible. I disappointed many of my professors, who either didn’t know me well enough to realize this wasn’t normal for me, or who saw a potential in me I was never going to reach.
Failing a few college courses might not seem like that big of a deal, but it was enough to thwart my entire future. I had fought so hard to get into college, coming from an unconventional educational background of being home-schooled until age fourteen, at which point I had to fight my way into higher level classes in public school. I had to struggle for the funding to go to college, with every adult in my life telling me that university just wasn’t attainable for someone as poor as I was. After so many years of trying so hard and, at times, being my only advocate, I didn’t just fail my classes. I felt I had failed myself, and every person who believed in me along the way.
Luckily, there were still a few people left who were there to catch me when I fell. I lost a lot of friendships during this time due to my inability to function as a normal person, let alone a friend, but a few of my friends held onto me during the turmoil and consistently reminded me that life was worth living. I began weekly visits to a therapist, a woman who helped me decide to keep trying even though I kept failing. I sought treatment for my depression, and treatment for the things that had happened to cripple me so completely. The dean heard my story and spoke with my professors, earning me a little leeway when I retook those courses. I didn’t lose my academic scholarship, through some miracle, and when summer passed and the fall of my senior year dawned, I was still in school, just barely in the running to graduate.
It was still incredibly difficult. The trauma I endured wasn’t a static thing, and I had to deal with it as it kept evolving. I passed my classes, sometimes narrowly. I had to take on extra units to compensate for my failed semester, leaving me with a huge course load. I still failed, a lot — I failed to keep up on friendships, or make any new ones; I found myself without the energy to connect in a college environment that I had once looked forward to with eagerness. I failed to engage in classes that once would have been exciting to me. I didn’t triumphantly race across the finish line to graduation — I limped, precariously close to giving up even at the very end.
These days, almost two years after graduating, I still regard much of that time as time spent failing. I failed people, relationships, my own expectations and goals. I failed again and again, in ways big and small. I’m not nostalgic. I would not relive that time willingly. But there is something I have learned from failing for two years straight: I learned the art of accepting my failure, moving on, and trying again.
I’m not saying I’m some great big zen master about all of it. It was awful, it sucked, and I still wince when recollecting some of my worst moments. But failing so hard created something in me that I hadn’t had before. I’d thought I was a fighter, with all I’d done to surpass my circumstances. I gained a new definition of what it meant to fight hard for something, to keep trying and trying and trying again. It was ugly, and it hurt, but it gifted me a resolve to not give up.
Life is full of disappointments and failures. I’ve only suffered a fraction of them, I’m sure — failed relationships, the crushing disappointment of an opportunity that fell through, the ‘F’ on the semester that felt like a death knell. I know that I will fail again in my time here. But I do believe that each time I do fail in the future, it will only add to my capacity to forgive myself, and others. Failure is a vital part of existence, one that will always be a possibility on the horizon. Facing it, accepting it, nursing your wounds, and getting back up again? That’s the thing that makes you stronger. It’s the thing that teaches you more about who you are, who you want to be. Failure carves us into better versions of ourselves, and that’s why it’s okay to do it, as many times as it takes to get you where you’re destined to go.