Failure is often relative and subjective. What I see as a devastating shortcoming might not seem that devastating to you. And hidden somewhere in that truth, there’s something to be said about failure itself being all in our heads. But I’m not going to explore that today. Instead I’m going to talk about the time I got a C in calculus.
I grew up a typical, goody-two-shoes, butt-kissing, overachiever. I had straight A’s my whole life up until college. I aced all my tests, destroyed all my standardized exams, everything. And when I got to uni, overachieving got to be a bit tougher, but I still managed to do really well in my classes. With the exception of my calculus class, that is.
On my first calc test I got a 68%, which was really hard to come to terms with at first because the entire test was just a review of everything you should know before you start calculus.
We’re talking basic algebra, simplifying expressions, finding limits, all that stuff. And I failed it somehow. That rattled my world. But I just got determined to do better on the next one. Which I did, it turns out: I got a 72%. Again, I resolved to improve and ace the third test. I fell a bit shy of acing it with a 78%. And then on the fourth test, the one right before the final, that was my grand masterpiece. All my hard work paid off. I did it. I got an 89% and was geared to get an A- in the class. All I had to do was get an 80% on the final exam. I could handle it. I could do it. I knew it.
So the studying began.
I had a week to prepare. I studied for a good, attentive 4 hours every evening leading up to the exam. I didn’t go out, I canceled plans with friends, I skipped grocery shopping and ate at the cafeteria everyday instead. I didn’t let myself read during that week. I stayed away from Reddit and cute cat videos on Youtube. It was maddening, but I just kept my eyes on the prize: an A- in calculus. I would keep my nearly perfect streak. I just had to push a little more.
On the second to last day before the exam, I spent the entire day studying. I didn’t leave my room at all except to use the bathroom down the hall. By the time the sun went down, I was a wreck. I was exhausted, bored out of my mind, anxious about the exam, and most troubling at that time – I was hungry. I set my books aside and went down to the cafeteria to get something to eat. And while I stood in line at the omelet station, something struck me.
What have I accomplished exactly over the last week?
What have I done?
What have I created?
I was suddenly disappointed in myself. I spent an entire week memorizing theorems, doing hundreds of practice problems, drawing graphs. At the time I was hoping to get into web development or animation, and it was clear to me that all the effort and energy I had spent over the last week was essentially wasted. None of what I was learning could be directly used in the jobs I wanted. And moreover, none of what I did fulfilled me. I didn’t have anything to show for all the hours I put in. I didn’t actually create or build anything, which is the most fulfilling type of work for me.
Everything I had been doing was to please other people – the school administrators, my professor and TA, my peers, my parents. It was to look good, to look like an active, engaged, smart student. I sacrificed my physical and emotional health to keep the peace and maintain the status quo, and to satisfy my addiction to perfection.
In that moment, my addiction to perfection became all too clear to me. Hidden deep below the addiction was a fear of failure. I was afraid of what would happen to me and my life if I ever got a B. When you get B’s, I was told, doors close. “You have less options. And you can’t ever open those doors again. So don’t mess this up!” So I pushed myself to get A’s not just to make everyone around me happy and proud, and not just because I enjoyed the attention and admiration, but because I was afraid of what might happen if I failed to get A’s. It was a crippling fear.
I finished my omelet and set off to the library. It was packed with students studying for exams. Everyone had bags under their eyes and yawns echoed through the study areas. But I wasn’t there to study with them. I wasn’t going to give in to my addiction anymore. I walked through the cases of books for nearly an hour, pulled three different things that interested me, and went back to my dorm room.
The next day, the day before the calculus exam, I opened up What Is Sufism? by Martin Lings and started reading. I went for a walk. I ate three nourishing meals. I said hi to my neighbors. But most importantly, I didn’t touch calculus at all. I didn’t do any practice problems. I didn’t watch any lectures or solution videos. I didn’t quiz myself on all the formulas and theorems I had been memorizing. I just enjoyed the day and was really happy.
Spoiler alert, I failed my calculus exam. Like, literally failed it with a 50%. And that dragged my overall class grade down to C. But I finished that book on Sufism, which was really exciting and mind-opening for me. And after all of this, I don’t regret a thing – not even that week I wasted studying for the exam.
I learned from this whole ordeal that the world keeps going when you fail. Nobody around you actually cares.** The important thing to master is getting back on the bike when you fall off, or in my case, when you jump off. And because of that week I spent studying, I became aware of my addiction to perfection. This event also kicked off: 1) My interest in Sufism and comparative religion, 2) My journey to overcome the need to sacrifice my own happiness to make other people happy.
So all in all, this is one of my most valuable and treasured failures so far in my life. It turns out that getting a C in calculus opened a lot of doors for me. It taught me a lot more than getting an A would have.
**Ok, that’s not entirely true. My parents cared a lot. Awk…