LESSONS ON FAILURE AND GOAL SETTING: A COLLEGE FINALS STORY
Monday, Dec. 15, 2019
Because finals season is upon us for those who are in school, let me tell you a story about the time I thought my world was ending because of a test.
I want to share this because of what I learned from it, and sadly, I didn’t truly get it until my college days were over. All I can hope is that someone learns from my experience.
It was a goal of mine throughout my entire college career to get a 4.0 for a semester. I know grading varies a lot depending on what school you go to, but getting a 4.0 at Villanova was no easy task.
Every semester there was at least one class where I knew I was going to have to work my tail off for an A- or a B+.
Finally, my second semester junior year, I was so confident, so ready going into finals, I knew that 4.0 was so close I could almost touch it.
The thing about second semester is, finals and moving out happen pretty much at the same time. As someone with anxiety, big moments of change, like packing up a whole apartment, make me incredibly anxious. On top of that, I also get pretty nervous about driving, and I was about to make the six hour drive home by myself. Hence, I worried about it for weeks.
My very last final that semester was for a class about the history of objects. It was a lower level history elective filled with non-majors and business students that I took because my research advisor was teaching it and I thought it was give me another chance to work on the project that would become my senior thesis.
When I took that test, I looked at the essay prompts and wrote down the outline to all my answers in the margins. Then I started writing. The test was made up of three essays, and I walked out of there knowing I had nailed it.
I left the test, packed up my car and drove home. While final grades still had to come out, I knew that finally that 4.0 was mine.
Then, I got an email that devastated me. And I mean inconsolably lying on the floor sobbing for hours like my life was over. It really felt like the world around me was crashing in.
I received an email from my professor saying that she wanted to warn me so I wasn’t confused about my grade, but that I had forgotten to answer the final essay question. You can do the math, but that ensured the best I could do on the final was a 66%. She assured me that because of my performance in the class, I would come out of this with a B+.
I sent her probably the most desperate and panicked email I have ever sent, explaining that I was so anxious about moving out and driving home, that I had completely forgotten about the final question. To make it worse, if you remember, I had written my answer to that essay question in the margins of the prompt.
I poured my soul out in that desperate email, telling her about my struggles with anxiety. I was incredibly embarrassed, worried she would think I was making excuses, and holding on to my last sliver of hope that she would let me call her and prove I still knew all the answers, or anything else I could do to make up for it.
The email I received back from my professor basically said there was nothing she could do, and that she hopes that this could be a learning experience, and that I could focus on my mental health, or something like that.
That’s when, from my perspective, the world was actually ending. I was completely inconsolable for hours.
Like I mentioned before, this professor was also my research advisor, and I had to work with over the summer as I had been awarded a research grant to continue working on my ongoing project. The embarrassment of this whole situation, on top of the absolute crushing blow of what I perceived as ultimate failure made me want to disappear.
Fast forward to now, I can look back on this whole experience much more kindly. It was definitely not the end of the world (despite feeling like it at the time) and in fact, there were a lot of positives that I needed to get through this momnet first to reach.
The regret I felt for taking that class in the first place is gone. Without that class, I wouldn’t have started thinking about actions and objects in gendered terms, or as means of claiming authority or power, something that greatly informed the final product of my ongoing research project, and my senior thesis.
I was selected as an undergraduate presenter at UPenn with that senior thesis. I submitted that senior thesis to journals for publication at Vanderbilt and Yale. I am incredibly proud of that.
I was admitted into Phi Beta Kappa, something only a tiny select few students across the world can say (and if you know anything about PBK’s election process, which basically happens in secret, you must be in the top 10% of graduates, a professor has to nominate you with a recommendation letter, and then a committee reviews your time at school and your whole resume). Now I get to be in the company of 17 former presidents, and 8 of the 9 supreme court judges. And I earned that.
It’s also finally sunk in that the weight I put on achieving a 4.0 was completely exaggerated and unhealthy. I got plenty of A’s in college, just not exclusively A’s in one seamster, and that’s ok.
Getting that 4.0 printed on my transcript was not a measure of my intelligence, or how dedicated I was to my education.
I also can look back and see that while it doesn’t matter at all, I sure as hell should have been proud of myself for knowing that I had all the knowledge, and all the skills that reflect what a 4.0 means, even if I didn’t officially get one.
While I couldn’t really see this all until after I had graduated, long after this whole thing happened, it was still a really important lesson for me on goals and failing to reach them.
That 4.0 goal was incredibly singular. I had it in my head that I couldn’t be smart or successful without it. That’s not healthy.
You should never let a numerical or tangible goal conflate into self-worth. Many times, these goals have tons of factors you can’t control. For example, you can’t control who grades a test involving essays. You also can’t control if diving judges are just throwing low scores that specific day, or if the stock market crashes. Things like that might stink, but they’re simply out of your hands.
Numerical goals need to have caveats. For example, I hope this post gets 20,000 viewers, but my goal is to write something that I can be proud of. Then I can say, hey, my post didn’t get as much engagement as I wanted it to, but am I happy about the content I put into the world, and maybe I helped someone today.
All in all, I hope someone, somewhere took something away from this post. I really do hope I touched at least one person with this, because that truly is my goal. If you’re that person, I’d love to hear from you, and maybe even chat some more, so please feel free to reach out!
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