In my entire academic career, I’ve failed one class. In all my seventeen years of being a student, only one of my grades slipped below a C. It was sophomore year of high school, and the course was algebra 2. Now, I’m not particularly bad at basic math. It doesn’t interest me in the slightest, but I’ll do it if I have to. I just really wanted to fail that class.
Oh sure, I could blame it on the teacher. He was pretty terrible. Like many of my other male teachers, he had a fondness for sports and enjoyed talking about them in class more often than actually teaching. But I’ve done fine under worse teachers; this time it was all me. In fairness to myself, I took the same course again the next year and passed with a B, so it’s not like I was a hopeless case. That year I think I just wanted to see what I could get away with.
Am I a little remorseful about the tutor my parents hired so I could get a better understanding of the subject? Not really. It’s not that I couldn’t understand on my own, I just didn’t want to bother with it. I don’t think my parents wanted to believe I could be so neglectful, so they wasted time and money on a (very talented, kind, and patient) tutor when I would much rather have been napping or drawing. Like I said, I did fine the next year, and I didn’t have a tutor then. I didn’t have a choice, so I don’t regret the money my parents spent. It’s not like I was wasting the martial arts classes I’d begged for.
I just didn’t do my homework, and as a result I did poorly on tests. And so I failed. I failed despite my parents’ desperate attempts to keep me afloat. I failed despite my usually stellar GPA. I failed despite my incessant fear of failure. And I’m pretty sure I did it on purpose, so I could prove to myself that failure isn’t the end of the world.
As an epilogue, I had an above-average GPA when I graduated high school (for my class, at least). I got into the only college I applied to. I graduated college cum laude, so I got an annoying little tassel with my cap and gown. I have a job and a salary and I’m looking forward to where I go with my life. Failing algebra 2 in grade ten didn’t ruin my chances at having a decent life, even though pretty much every adult I knew would have had believe that. And along the way, I was terrified that failure was around every corner, just waiting for me to slip up.
That deep, troubling fear of failure has been cultivated in me since I was a child. No mistakes were tolerated in my home. Even questions, when asked with all sincerity, were treated with contempt and frustration. Get it right the first time, or don’t even bother trying. When I was older and thinking of leaving my terrible retail job, my father told me he would prefer me to stay at the grocery store rather than go out and fail to get something else. I was the only kid I knew who was actively trying not to get a driver’s license because I was so afraid I’d fail the test. Applying to college was a nightmare for me; I didn’t even bother applying to the school I liked best because I was certain they’d never accept me (not to mention that my father didn’t like it very much). Simple things like opening a checking account or calling for delivery paralyzed me with fear that I would mess up. Work was a nightmare; every day afraid that a single mistake, a tiny fluctuation in my fake-perky mood would get me fired and I’d have to go home and tell my parents of my failure to keep a job.
The only thing that really helped me quiet that fear was success. Every little thing I managed to do right that everyone else messed up reminded me that I didn’t need to be so hard on myself. I got a job on my own at a place I like and people ask me questions I can answer. I’ve been able to give up unfulfilling and emotionally draining friendships. And I just keep moving forward. That’s really the only direction anyone can move in, so why worry about it?
I’ve definitely failed my fair share since the big algebra 2 fiasco of 2005. But each consecutive failure has been less devastating than the last. When four boys turned me down after I asked them to the prom, I asked a fifth. When I was out of college looking for work and the clothing store I had two interviews at regretfully informed me I did not get the job, I applied to a hardware store. When my boss told me I made a mistake on the website I edit, I fixed it. That isn’t to say that I’ve held my head high through each one. I’ve definitely entered the void of self-loathing after many of my recent failures. But the point is that I moved on. I kept going, determined to get it right. And then I finally succeeded, and even that success wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. But it’s all come together to help me learn and grow and get things right more often without even trying.
Failure can be a healthy tool when it comes to learning how to navigate this world. Living with a crippling fear of failure, though, keeps us from taking even the smallest risks that will enable us to enjoy our lives and prospects more. Sometimes it’s best to just force ourselves to fail.