Failure is an experience more than what any dictionary can define. Failure is individualized – a product of personal beliefs, lifestyle and culture. Many people define their failure quantifiably – for example, achieving below a 60% on their Biology midterm, or falling short of a competitive GPA and MCAT score for the medical school of their dreams. Others may define their failure by their inability to achieve a goal – such as being turned down for multiple job positions or missing the opportunity to try out for a national competitive martial arts team. If you are thinking, these are awfully specific, you are correct – these are real and difficult failures I have experienced. My biggest “failure”, however, was seperate from a devastation that could be alleviated by reaching a grade or goal. The failure I suffered from was personal – failure to attend to my values, to practice my hobbies, to respect my body, and to address my mental health. Failure was more than an event in my life; it was me who was the failure.
University life was a huge change. Wiping the slate clean in a place completely unknown to me was terrifying, but the freedom was exhilarating. While I felt as though I was finding my true self, I had a simultaneous and conflicting gut feeling that I was losing myself, forgetting who I really was. I lost confidence in advocating for my beliefs, specifically in calling-in and calling-out my peers to address their use of casual slurs and blatant disrespect for others. The university hook-up culture made me feel uncomfortable, yet I participated, because everyone seemed to do it. I was hurt from a past relationship, therefore avoiding opening myself up to new, real relationships seemed to be a logical solution. I fell out of practicing karate and piano, activities that I exceled in and enjoyed, in lieu of partying with friends and hours of empty studying. I experienced cognitive dissonance of the highest order. I avoided talking about my sense of self-failure and instead cried in my residence room, by myself, too many times to count. Was this what university was about? This didn’t feel like the personal growth everyone else had seemed to experience in first year and beyond. This felt like failure.
I was probably as depressed as I’ve ever been. After much deliberation, I realized it was time to take action instead of suffer on my own. I realized that I can embrace my identity but also be accepting to change and growth. That growth isn’t linear; it is normal to feel like I am failing myself sometimes. That you should accept who you are, and change for yourself, not to conform to the people around you. I began to find involvement and leadership opportunities, on and off campus, that aligned with my personal values. In these activities I saw the most growth in my leadership, communication skills and my identity itself. Who I was as a person was, in fact, “changing”, but I never felt more connected to and confident in my personal identity.
I recently watched The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man (I highly recommend giving it a watch on Netflix) where the narrator brilliantly puts into perspective the hardships of life. He references the short story of the Taoist Farmer, which goes like this:
“There was an old farmer whose horse had ran away. That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, “Maybe.” And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for his misfortune. He said, “Maybe.” The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer’s son was rejected. When the neighbors came in to say how fortunately everything had turned out, he said, “Maybe”.”
The narrator argues that, in life, things are always up and down. Life is unpredictable. As the Taoist farmer story illustrates, good things can lead to bad things, and bad things can lead to good things. As such, I believe failure is inevitable. But failure can lead to success, and vice versa.
I still feel the stings of failures: of bad grades, lost opportunities, and failed relationships. In these moments, I hold on tight to my self-worth, my strengths and my beliefs. This life consistently challenges my idea of self-identity, but also allows my continuous growth. If I had one piece of advice to give about failure, it would be this: I believe that, in facing the looming unpredictability of life’s failures, if you remain true to your identity, are open to all manifestations of growth, and believe in yourself, life’s events are simply but a series of “maybes”.