As a child, the notion of failure in the form of poor academics was always heavily laced into my life due to the influence of my parents. They came from a background where education was highly regarded due to Confucianism influences. As first generations coming into Australia, my parents worked back breakingly hard to survive and saw education as a path to gaining a good job. This meant a comfortable lifestyle, free of 12-hour dish-washing jobs and living day to day worrying about the next meal.
This heavy emphasis on academic excellence, where you strive to achieve 100%, where you’d be constantly asked for your school reports, and where there was a constant comparison of your academic social standing with their friend’s children became a framework I lived by. Failure was not a good thing, no, it was something to be avoided when you could. Every time I failed, I would blame it on anything but myself. It wasn’t me that failed, instead the test just happened to be too hard, or I just didn’t have enough time.
I wasn’t the only one though. In a school where students were predominantly Asian, where they were brought up with similar influences to mine, they were exactly the same. When I received back a paper and saw that I scored badly, I would sink a little in my chair and slide the paper from the desk straight into my bag. After when someone asked me what I got, instead of telling them I’d ask them what they got instead. Everyone around me did the same – only good marks were proudly displayed, whilst the scores of bad marks were kept quiet as the owners prayed to every spiritual figure to be left alone.
In hindsight now, that fear came hand in hand with the expectations of those around you. My family expected me to do well, my friends expected me to keep doing well, and at a certain point in my HSC year, my teachers expected me to do well too. Failure became a motivator, and I was in a cat-and-mouse game with it constantly trying to outrun it.
There were two instances where now looking back, would illustrate my point most clearly.
- In year 9, I did particularly bad in my school reports. Knowing my parents would ask me for it, and with less than 2 A’s (which blatantly signalled the end of the world at that age), I presented them a fake report. Same name, same everything, but with different grades and ranks. A better version of me if you will, the version they needed to see and the version at that age I really wanted to be.
- One of my favourite teachers (to this day) was my year 12 biology teacher. Having consistently maintained a high rank, I one day received my test results that made my rank drop from #3 to #27. Now I was on an average rank. When handing back my results he asked ‘Did something happen? Expected you to get a little better than this, but try harder next time!’. For the rest of the class that day I sought comfort in plugging in earphones with my head down on the desk with silent tears of shame.
By the end of high school, I learned to internalise failure. No longer did my parents have to tell me about failing – I knew not to do it by instinct. I never displayed my failures, I never talked about them, I never reflected on them. Success was the only path.
This fear of failure still permeates the way I live to this day (to a much much smaller degree), like the way it permeated my primary school, high school, and now University life. However, with only a stone’s throw away from the ‘real scary adult world’, the stakes are raised higher. Suddenly you needed more than just good marks. You needed a good CV, you needed to make friends that would help your career in the future, you needed to immerse yourself more in societies and clubs, you needed internships, you needed to win awards if you could, you needed networks. In short, you needed a lot to put you one-step above the rest so that you could be one-step closer to scoring a good job. It wasn’t just about the job though. You had to not only be successful in academics, but also physically, in relationships, your friendships, and your career.
This blog was inspired from a small break-down I had one month ago after being rejected by 4 University societies (a 4/4 100% failure rate). Looking back, it was something so small and so insignificant to be rejected by 4 societies.
It wasn’t even a job.
It wasn’t even an internship.
It wasn’t even failing a class and accumulating my HECS-debt.
No one died.
It was just student-run societies.
But receiving the email with the contents of ‘We are sorry to inform you that you did not make it to …’ hit me hard.
After wallowing in my room of self-despair for around 5 days whilst watching what must’ve been at least 56 stories about failure, success and getting your life back on track, I finally snapped out of it. Since then I’ve approached failure differently, seeing it as a fleeting and inevitable part of my life, and a stepping stone to better things.
I hope this blog helps you too if just a little.