Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

Good News for Failures

Failure is a crushing weight. But there is good news for failures.

Photo credit Premasagar Rose (Creative Commons)

Photo credit Premasagar Rose (Creative Commons)

Growing up, I struggled with self-management. I stayed up late, slept in, procrastinated, and, generally, could not resist any type of “marathon” on television. Five hours into Mr. Ed re-runs, I would ask myself, “Shouldn’t I be doing something else?”

This problem never affected me too much in high school—I made straight A’s and was at the top of my class. But then, I graduated and moved on to higher education.

I did not go to a University, I went to The Institute—one of the top engineering schools in the nation.

At The Institute, every student was a valedictorian or salutatorian. I remember freshman orientation. Nine hundred of us packed into the theater auditorium as administrators and alumni welcomed us to The Institute. I specifically remember one speaker. He walked to the podium dressed in a cleanly pressed suit and conservative tie. He looked successful.

“Look at the person on your left,” he instructed us.
We turned.
“Look at the person on your right.”
Again, we obeyed.
Then, he delivered the punch line: “Only one of you will still be here in four years.”

Welcome to The Institute.

I squeaked through my first year with decent grades. Not much had changed in the area of self-management, though. There were too many nights spent watching The Late Show and then The Late Late Show and then syndicated episodes of The Highlander. There were too many mornings that started after noon.

All of this caught up with me the first semester of my sophomore year.

As background, I was at The Institute on scholarship. With a big family like mine (eight children), there was not enough money for college. My dad told me when I was young, “You better be fast, or smart, or talented, because that’s the only way you are paying for college.”

Well, I was smart enough to have all my costs covered.

Then, the first finals week of my sophomore year arrived. I had three exams in a row—Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Believe it or not, I started studying on Sunday. I can’t remember what I was doing over the weekend, but I know that I wasn’t doing the one thing I needed to do.

Sunday night, I did not sleep. I studied all night and took my test on Monday. After the test, I took a nap for a couple hours and then started preparing for my next exam. All Monday night I studied and took my test on Tuesday. (Yes, two all-nighters in a row). Wednesday, I had my last exam—Electromagnetism. Taught by Dr. Fox. Or as I call him, Dr. Evil.

Dr. Evil usually taught master’s classes in Physics. When our scheduled professor had to take a leave, Dr. Evil filled in. He was not accustomed to teaching “common students” like us. He usually taught future physicists who spend their weekends proving formulae. He did not understand that we did not understand.

I thought about dropping the class, but his first couple tests were easy. We were allowed to use calculators and a list of formulas. In E-Mag, there are over 100 important formulae you must know and know how to use. With my handy list, I did well enough to have one point from an A.

I specifically remember where I was sitting during the last class before the final. Dr. Evil told us that the test would have only 8 questions and that we were not allowed to use our calculators or lists of formulas. Oh, and there would be no partial credit. For each question, you got it completely right, or completely wrong. 100% or 0%.

So, there I was on Tuesday night, after two sleepless nights, trying to memorize 100 formulae about everything from planetary motion to the effects of gravity on large bodies. I was exhausted, but I pushed through. It was my last test and I could go home.

The next morning, I dragged myself to the lecture hall and did my best on the exam. I didn’t know everything, but I thought I had done well enough. Afterwards, I went home for holiday break.

A couple days after New Year, I checked my grades for the semester. I scanned down the list until I came to E-Mag. “D”. One grade above failure. How could my grade fall from almost an A to almost an F? There must be some mistake.

Back at school, I went to visit Dr. Evil in his office. I explained my situation and asked to see my exam. He sifted through a stack of papers on his filing cabinet. He stopped on one, scanned it, sighed, and handed it to me. At the top of the exam were my name and my grade—ZERO. Nothing. Not one question right. Complete failure. I had missed every single question on the final exam!

I mumbled thanks and watched my feet carry me from the office. I was dejected. I earned that D.

I walked to the university office where students pay for classes. The building was happy place for me because instead of giving money, I received money. My scholarship provided for books and food. I lived off of the money I received for the whole semester.

I walked to the big iron divide and slid my student ID card across the granite counter to the lady at the computer. She typed my name into her terminal then turned to me, “That will be $600 please.” I stared back, confused. Usually my check was for more than that. “You mean I only get $600?” It was her turn to be confused. “No, you need to pay $600.”

I was crushed.

Could the day get worse? First a zero on a final and now this! I had lost my scholarship. Instead of receiving money from the school, I owed money to the school.

I imagined coming home for my next break.

“Hey Josh, how is everything at The Institute? Did I mention how proud we all are of you?”
“School is great. I got a zero on a final and lost my scholarship. Now I don’t know what I am going to eat or how I will pay for school. Thanks for asking.”

The boulder of failure had fallen on my chest. I was crushed beneath its weight.

What possible good could come from this?

Good News for Failures

This one failure changed me more than all my successes leading up to it.

Eventually, I found some money to pay for the semester, but I knew something needed to happen soon or I couldn’t stay enrolled. In order to get my scholarship back, I calculated that I needed to get in A in every class I had—5 classes. I had never done that before. It seemed impossible. But what could I do?

I got to work. My study habits began to change. I was reading all of my assignments, studying for exams earlier, working all of the practice problems. I formed study groups in my classes and spent more time with people who were good students.

I was going to bed earlier and getting up earlier. All these issues of self-management that I had wanted to change for years were transforming.

Success didn’t change me; failure did.

Failure gave me the motivation, energy, and will to truly change. There is a bright side to failure—if you survive it, you will be better than before.

My grades arrived at the end of the semester— five A’. I earned back my scholarship. I graduated in four years. But, most importantly, I was different than I was before.

Thank you failure. I hate how you feel, but I love the change you bring.

What good has come into your life through failure? Let me know in the comments below.

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