Failure is not fun. It is one of the most painful, traumatic, yet necessary experiences in life. Recovering from it, if ever, is often an excruciating experience filled with potholes and heart-wrenching emotional roller coaster. If you ride the roller coaster and succeed in getting to the end of it, you are left empowered and you realise that although it was bad at first, you have made it.
Some people take failure in their strides, laugh it off, and quickly pick themselves from it. But for many, like me, dealing with failure is sometimes a much harder journey.
Let me share with you some of my experiences of failure back in the day when I was a chemical engineering undergraduate student at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
I left high school as one of the best students in my high school in Bloemfontein and in my province, the Free State. In many ways I was an over-achiever; I was that learner (yes THAT one) who collected certificates and trophies during academic award ceremonies. The year I left high school I had received the Principal’s Award – the highest honour award given to a learner that performed both academically and in extra-mural activities.
Receiving the Principal’s Award was a great achievement. It felt like I had reached the top of a mountain that I had been climbing, and I was experiencing the breath-taking views, the fresh air and serenity that came with it. The award was a great achievement considering that it could have been given to two of my classmates. The three of us were top performers; but my participation in the extra-curricular activities that year put me ahead of the game. I left high school an academically successful girl heading out into the world and failure was not in my vocabulary. I averaged above 80 %, and as far as I can remember my academic record had always been that way.
Then I got to UCT. Well let’s just say that I got a shock of my life! Life was different and faster. Everything was new – from lecturers presenting slides (I was used to chalkboard), sitting in large lecture theatres (I was used to flat level classrooms and relatively smaller class sizes) and tests, quizzes, tuts, workshops and all these new things.
I had friends, and since we were from similar backgrounds, it helped me realise that I was not the only one feeling challenged by the new ways of doing things. This helped me feel OK and I was going with the flow until I received my first Maths class test results. I had failed with a shocking 38%. Take that in, a student with a 95% average Matric mark getting a 38% at university - just 3 months later! Just reflecting on that experience makes tears well up in my eyes and my heart somewhat sore.
I am not the only one who felt that way. You may have felt it too. Some of you may be experiencing it right now. I was not the only one in class to have failed; some performed worse than I did while others got high marks. But the experience hit me like ton of bricks. It also felt like someone had punched me with an iron fist right in the middle of my stomach and for a moment I was disorientated and couldn’t breathe. While shocked at my mark, I then quickly browsed to check the marks of one of my classmates from high school who had also gone to UCT to study engineering and my eyes almost popped out of their sockets when I realised that they’d scored 70% in the same class test. This intensified my feelings of failure. Clearly I was the weaker one.
Later that day I arrived back to my room in res, threw my book bag on the floor, threw myself on the bed and started crying. I didn’t cry for long. I figured it was a waste of time. I didn’t know who I was anymore and the experience of failure certainly proved that I was at wrong place and in the wrong degree. The next day I downloaded forms of another college where I decided that I’d leave UCT chemical engineering and go study chemistry instead. I don’t remember what I did with that plan.
My second experience of failure was in my second year. Back then chemical engineering students did Engineering Drawing course MEC102W. I was terrible at drawing. OK I am still terrible at drawing and I am OK with it. I have accepted that I am not jack-of-all-trades. My good friend and I had just been going with the flow in the MEC102W. Every week we would try understanding the instructions of the very old lecturer who must have been in his 80s, but he never used to make sense to us. I had classmates who understood drawing so they were always willing to help me at least do enough to meet my submissions. When portfolio was required my friend and I always went around to ask for help from those who were good at it. We would leave some drawings incomplete and hope that we would not be requested to submit them.
As they say - you can run but you cannot hide forever. One day we had to write the MEC102W examination in June. We did our best to prepare for it. When the marks came back I had scored 9%. That is 9 out of 100. My friend had a mark not much more than mine. I remember us collecting our exam scripts. What we did that day was unthinkable, we laughed so hard that tears began to roll down my cheeks. I still think that what we did was the best way to deal with our marks; what else can one do to overcome getting 9% in an exam?
The last experience of failure that I want to share with you was in my final year of chemical engineering. As much as I had failed tests along the journey, I had not failed a single course. If everything went well, I was going to graduate in record time. The stakes were high. Then I hit a massive pothole in a course called Process Control. I disliked the course, not because the content was difficult, but because it just didn’t make sense to me. My husband, Lucky, who was my classmate then, was very good at the course.
One day, in preparation for the class test, Lucky sat down with me and explained the course material to me in great detail. He didn’t study for the test; he focused on helping me so that I could improve my marks in the class test. We wrote the test and when the marks came back I had scored the lowest mark of 29% in class. Lucky had scored the highest in class with a mark in the high 70s. Most of the classmates had passed the class test. I was the black sheep of the family.
The experience of getting the lowest mark in class for Process Control hit me really hard. It marked the beginning of my anxiety attacks. I was over-stressed. I had come so far since first year but this course was threatening my chances of graduating in record time. I felt helpless, stressed, anxious, and I also began to experience memory loss. The situation seemed to spill into other areas of my life and it was like I was being buried alive. I could not sleep well at night and the situation got so bad that I visited a GP who prescribed some anti-anxiety medication. I eventually passed the course, but not easily. I still think grace intervened.
Fast-forward to this moment, sitting in this room, on this desk and reflecting on what this was all about. Hey maybe I went through the above experiences of failure so that today I can sit, reflect, and write to encourage you. Maybe I went through all that drama so that I can find the strength to be here for you in case you are going through the same thing. I now hold a degree in chemical engineering (yes I did graduate at the end of that year), a master’s and a PhD. I look back with a sense of pride and joy that I overcame those experiences of failure.
My aim in this post was not to offer solutions – that’s the subject of future posts. Here I wanted to share that I have failed, but failure has not defined who I have become in life.
Failure is painful yet necessary step to your growth. Embrace it. Learn from it. Rise above it, because you can.
I wish you love, strength and healing