So yesterday I wrote about my fear of rejection due to a troubled schooling environment. As I didn't have too many friends during that period, I instead focused on other endeavours such as getting good school grades, learning piano, participating in competitive chess and athletics. These were in essence my proto-projects.
In fact, I had a somewhat prolific high school graduation; having gotten pretty high Tertiary Entrance scores, and being friends to the other top students of my cohort, I felt like I was one of the musketeers, having together conquered the academic hill. But this actually marked the beginning of a new phase of a fearful life.
Darwin (the Australian city, not the scientist) did not have the best higher education options for me back in the mid-2000s, which meant that if I had strong career aspirations, I would need to do a degree interstate or overseas. And so after having considered all the options I decided to move to Adelaide to study Computer Science, as I was offered a place there with scholarship, and this was where I started taking a more serious interest in IT.
January 2007. My first year of uni. It was perhaps the most fun because it was the first year I tasted independence, and also had the privilege to live in a residential college with many other future doctors, lawyers, engineers etc. The courses themselves weren't too hard at first, and I felt like I could balance having fun, participating in my club/church as well as perform well enough in my studies. I was wrong.
In the second year, I left that ant hill I previously conquered, and began to scale a real mountain. The learning curve quickly steepened with each successive week and each successive assignment, such that I was starting to struggle with not only the course contents, but also completing assignments by their deadlines. It was as if I was being punished for taking my studies too lightly and enjoying college life too much the previous year. And at the end of the first semester of my second undergraduate year, something happened that would change the rest my university experience.
For those who have taken uni-level exams, you probably know what the post-exam ritual is. Everyone knew roughly which dates the exam markings would finish and they would receive their final course grades, and on the expected date we would camp at our computers that whole day waiting for those online academic transcripts to update themselves on the school's website.
So the webpage has loaded, but nothing has updated yet. I quickly went out to get some lunch. Came back and pressed F5. Still nothing. I began to wonder if I remembered wrong the date my scores would come out. Pressed F5 again. I started to think whether I should be so eager to know my results; I didn't do as well as I hoped in the exams after all. Pressed F5 twice in a row. Maybe my Internet connection is a bit glitchy and the page isn't refreshing properly. F5 again. At last, it updated.
And there it was. Amidst all the things that changed on the first row of the transcript, it was a single character that seized my mind. An uncomplicated, readably fonted, capitalized and bolded 'F'. I remember that when I first saw this I paused. The world around me froze for the briefest eternity.
At first I found myself naively hoping it might have stood for something else. Maybe F stands for "Fantastic", or "Further marking needed", or "First place". Or maybe there was some dirt on the screen obscuring the curve part of a character "P" which is only a pass, but a pass nonetheless. After all, I did often eat my lunch in front of my laptop and the screen ended up becoming a petri dish smear of my culinary program. But no. It was an F for Fail. Then another F popped up a couple of rows down. And this time it's for a course I thought I should have passed. "What was going on?" I asked myself.
The next day I went to the lecturers' office to investigate the cause of my grades. In one course I failed on a technicality, as I didn't score high enough on a compulsory assignment despite doing well in the other course components and exams. But in the other course I genuinely scored too low in both the exam and assignments and wasn't even offered a supplementary. For the first time in my life, I Failed.
This was a serious psychological blow to me. To be sure, I was pretty gutted for the rest of that week. Up till this point in life, I have prided in academic success, being ahead of the pack when it came to grasping concepts, memory work and problem solving, and would somewhat tie my self-worth and self-esteem to my grades. I tried to take refuge in the fact that I did maintain a HD on my Japanese minor, but it was no consolation. I took for granted the complexity of what I was learning, and oversimplified my understanding of the course material. I treated my assignments and exams like a newspaper: browse once, regurgitate for an assignment essay, and discard. And for doing that I was pummeled by the system. I could have been more careful. I could have also worked that extra bit harder. I...should...have.
Around the same time, my family was having some financial difficulties, and so I could no longer afford to stay at the increasingly expensive college, and opted to move in with my sister in a rented apartment. I also had to work part-time to pay the bills as my scholarship only covered around half my own living costs and not my sister's. This multiplied the amount of stress I had to face in the second semester, where I had to repeat both courses, work about 15 hours of nights a week, as well as overload another one course so I can still make the 2010 graduations. This was a tough year. Not only did I have an obligation to not fail those courses, I now have an added need to not fail my sister who is just starting uni as well.
Second year of uni was when failure became more than a theoretical concept to me. It was a very real, very scary prospect. It was no longer some stranger on the asphalt whom I would zoom past on my racecar to success. The penalty of failing the same two courses again would lead to inability to graduate from this course altogether (school policy). So as I took them again I needed to secure a pass. But working the night shifts at the local supermarket did take a toll on both my physical and mental health, which began to deteriorate.
In retrospect, I realized that for much of my final year of high school and my first year of university, I was starting to think and act like The Hare. I had the potential and capacity to achieve, and after having proven myself at an earlier step, I became blinded by pride. Then I began taking a mental snooze while everyone else marched forward in the first year.
It is only a few years later that I began to admit my arrogance when it came to institutional learning. I believed that there was no value in attending lectures because some lecturers just read from the slides, so I could just skip the lectures altogether even though there are some benefits I chose to overlook. I thought the assignments weren't based on real life scenarios, and so I didn't want to do them and preferred to dabble on side projects. And the list of excuses I gave myself for poor academic performance goes on and on.
I tried distracting and distancing myself from the curriculum I didn't enjoy as much as possible, but the fear of failure began kicking in at the dawn of the second semester. And so, with great inner conflict, I grinded through those courses again while simultaneously hating them, and did pass second year, but only with lackluster numbers on my transcript. Those two 'F's from 2008-S2, they are there forever now; a painful reminder of the venial indiscretions of my youth.
One thing I did like about studying is the generous stretches of holidays we get. This is something that when you become a full time working professional you will really miss. Unlike annual leave which you must earn, uni holidays were a given for most. It was a perfect time to just chill, or go on a roadtrip, or work a part time job to earn some extra money. This is unless you chose to do summer and winter courses, which is exactly how I began spending my uni holidays from the end of second year onward.
Ruled by a fear of failure, I began studying overtime and taking extra courses during the summer and winter breaks. Whatever summer or winter courses could count towards the elective units of my degree and had no prerequisites, I did them. Microeconomics? Done. Aboriginal Legal System? Might as well. More Japanese and Sociology subjects? You had me at "Introduction to..."!
In a way, this renewed drive to actually put in my all into my studies was a good thing, though it was born out of fear of experiencing failure again. In fact, the previous interest I had in IT; the dream of working in Silicon Valley and joining or founding a startup company, quickly took a backseat, as suddenly those ambitions appeared to be dauntingly high risk. This was unfortunate timing because the most important element of uni-born start-ups is to form genuine connections with other talents in your class and related disciplines. I was so engrossed in making sure I got better grades, and coupled with my lingering fear of rejection, I didn't make as much effort in meeting with my classmates socially until the Honours year, where I started feeling less pressure to prove myself and actually enjoyed my courses and the people in it.
The fear of failure due to that one slip up in second year has completely changed my attitude towards my studies. I stopped taking for granted each assignment, and strive to do my best at each opportunity. This secured graduation from both my Bachelor and Honours programs, and I was ready to enter the workforce. This is a good thing.
However, while the thing that triggered my fear of failing is long past, the fear lingered inside. That fear became the man of the house, with caution as its wife, and pessimism its mistress. My family's financial situation was still not up to scratch when I graduated, and feeling both a sense of needing to support my family and the fear of screwing up overseas, I only applied for work within Australia, and abandoned the dream of reaching for Silicon Valley (circa 2012). I still managed to get a great job in public service, and have been treated very well by the workplace and my team members, but there has always been a pinch of regret inside.
This is the other side of the coin when it comes to having a fear of failing. It forms a bubble around your life and compels you to choose the safer options. You begin journeying through the path of least resistance. It makes you view thinly veiled insecurity as wisdom, and convinces you that you are making the right decision when you may actually be avoiding the best decision due to insecurities. Then further down the track, when you gain more insight about the world and learn of what the other paths could have led you to, you wish you could rewind the clock and chose a different turn at that fork five years ago.
Fearing failure is partly irrational and partly logical. In my opinion it is not as bad a thing to have as the fear of rejection, but it is a double edged sword when your subconscious mind applies it to every situation in your life. It teaches the need for caution, but not the need for courage. It drives you to be more committed and focused on the task at hand, but also forego other opportunities around you.
Perhaps I did need to fear failing at that point in my life, because if I didn't, I would have. But the one final dot I only connected more recently is that failure is only truly failure if it happens in isolation. I could not see this back then, but that was because I was also slave to the fear of rejection. You are never truly alone unless you purposefully drive everyone else out of your life. When you fail at something, that isn't the end. You have family, you have friends, and in Australia, you may even have government support*! More importantly, you (usually) get second chances. There is no need to fear failure as long as you respect it and have learned from your mistakes when you try again.
Life is about taking risks, but only of true worth when you actually understand and appreciate the risks you are taking.
*the amount of support you will receive is subject to an income and assets test, as well as the presence of a competent government