Demystifying Failure

I am not an overachiever. I do not have a long list of awards and accolades to my name. Throughout my highschool and university career, I largely coasted by on hard earned Bs and Cs. So I am not especially gifted or accomplished but I never failed a course. I never got fired from a job. I’ve never been in a position where I’ve been told that my performance is unacceptable.

Now, I know some people who have failed courses or dropped out of school altogether. I never know quite what to say to them because I treat their stories with my own deep fear of failure. I have long been terrified of what might happen if I were ever to fail at something. I would never have intentionally sabotaged myself but sometimes I wished that I had failed at least one course in my academic career, just so I could have known that life goes on after failure. I no longer express this feeling as it usually gets interpreted as ungrateful or as a ‘humble brag.’

I hear people in their thirties or older talking about their past failures in academics, jobs, or relationships and they’ll almost laugh at them. They’ll laugh at their past selves for having been so worried. They pass through this gauntlet of failure, this apparent rite of passage, and emerge not defeated but invulnerable.

By contrast I, standing before the gauntlet, imagined lots of potential outcomes. I imagined the disappointment of authorities and the oppressive weight of my own incompetence. Yet I see these more seasoned adults who think of their failures and don’t flinch. They don’t celebrate their failures but they’re at peace with them and are driven forward more by what is to be gained than what is to be lost.

Now I look back on the past year of my life and (to my error) compare it with those of my peers who graduated with me a year ago. I can’t say the year was wasted. I can point to intellectual, creative, and character growth. But the one thing I can’t stop thinking about is money. And now I am essentially broke.

This is my introduction to failure – financial failure. Profound monetary shortfall. Financial faceplant, waning wallet, budget blunder. And as I lay face-down in the mud, embarrassedly living off the understanding and generosity of others as I try to pick myself up, I think of these people who have failed and survived and my backwards retrospective wish to have failed a course. And as I lay in the proverbial mud, I note that I’m still breathing and people out there care about me.

The lesson I’m determined to learn from this is that failure is not an end. It may have consequences but it doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. There’s more to a person than their performance.

Perhaps failure isn’t all it’s made up to be. Once I’ve picked myself up and dusted myself off I imagine I will join the ranks who look back on their failures confident in the knowledge that it wasn’t such a big deal.

Why It’s Important to be Able to Defend Why Things are Important

During university, I briefly participated in a community outreach program that went into the downtown of Hamilton and handed out hot chocolate to pedestrians near the mall, bus terminals, or soup trucks. The goal of the exercise was first and foremost to be nice but we also hoped to have conversations with the passers-by about faith and God. Or anything else really. I only participated a few times but a few of the experiences really stuck with me.

One time, the group I was with had struck up a conversation with some art students from another nearby university and the conversation turned towards faith. We asked them a few questions and I clearly remember one of the girls dismissively saying “Oh, I don’t know about that. We’re creatives, not intellectuals.” They then began to break off from the conversation.

I had no response at the time but even years later I am still unpacking that answer. It speaks to a profound difference between how we and they interpreted the importance of a topic and the responsibility of awareness. To them, religion belonged to the domain of the intellectual which was unimportant to artists. It did not have universal significance; I strongly believe it does.

Now I play the conversation over and over and try to puzzle through what I might have said instead of standing there silently while they slowly peeled away. How do I defend to a person that this subject is important? Or any subject, actually. How do I defend that my favourite books or poems are important? How do I defend that theatre or the evolving art of video games are important? How can I convince a person to rethink their priorities and responsibilities so as to take what I’m saying seriously?

I’m not sure it’s a battle one can always win. If someone is determined to only think about some things and never others then there is little you can do. I believe this may be, in part, a side effect of our information saturated culture. Every day we are presented with more information than we can possibly process so we learn to block out some competitors in the fight for our attention. At least, that’s what I do. I imagine others do. Perhaps we can encourage people to occasionally check their filter and make sure they haven’t ignored something crucial.

Ultimately, I don’t have a solution to offer. Not an assured one. But I have gained something valuable. In learning how to defend the importance of my interests to others, I have learned their importance myself. I don’t know how to make the dismissive art girls like my favourite books but I now know precisely why they are important and how they make me a better person. I better understand their worth myself and I can better apply that in my life.

Other things I have realized are, contrary to prior opinion, not important! I’ve been able to let go of things that really don’t matter or at least hold onto them more loosely. I’ve learned the limitations of some of the things I enjoy. Overall, in trying to learn how to make others review their priorities and responsibilities, I had do to the same myself.

I didn’t ever think to ask myself why I thought things were important. When I started asking, I found a new deeper understanding. I encourage you to try the same. Especially if you’re an art student in Hamilton because I need closure.

Goals

I graduated from university about a year ago, at which point I was presented with a crisis. The scripted part of my life was over. Everything up to that point was planned. From the moment I left my graduation ceremony, nothing was planned. There were no longer and pre-determined achievements to unlock. I had to set my own goals.

For the past year I have tried to set goals and for the past year I have come up with nothing. “Projects” is a related term used by my former writing and theatre peers. People have writing projects or acting projects. I can’t manage a clear vision of what to spend a single day doing, much less a “project”.

That isn’t to suggest I haven’t accomplished anything in the past year. Even in the past month I’ve learned recipes, done writing, done some language learning, met people, and become a part of a community theatre production among other things. I’ve been looking for work. When I look at the person I was a year ago, I know I’ve grown. I know I’m further ahead in life than I used to be. But I still have no clear vision of where this is all heading and I’m not sure I can say I have and “goals”. Just things I try to do a little of every day.

And then I remember the words of all the adults in my life who told me, as I approached my final year of university, that they were all winging it. That the adults I had always considered the most established if not accomplished in life were all just improvising and that the most successful are often more fortunate than in control.

Perhaps this is a part of what they meant. Maybe it’s normal to not know where we’re going in life or even if we’re able to steer at all. Maybe it’s normal to want your life to count but not know what that would look like. Maybe it’s normal to aspire to something great but not know what that something great is. Perhaps that’s just a normal frustration to face, especially in young adulthood.

So I don’t have goals or projects or visions for my future. I have individual days that I make the most of. And I’m sure some day I’ll look back and see how each day’s effort lead to something to be proud of. Until then, I’m improvising.

Unlearning (or “The Difficulties Presented for Aspiring Writers by the Present Conventions of the North American University System”)

For every one criticism I might level at my alma mater, I can say ten nice things. Among those criticisms are even things that are not the fault of the institution but of the larger system and my smaller university is to be praised for being flexible and making the best of an unperfectible system. Nonetheless, the system encourages some bad habit that have to be unlearned.

Word counts and page counts – we have all suffered them. I understand them to an extent. Students should be able to express a certain depth and breadth of knowledge on a given subject and two pages often doesn’t cut it. But what happens when you just don’t have that much to say on a topic?

Again, it is reasonable for educators to expect a certain depth and breadth of knowledge from their students. I am certainly not trying to suggest that I, the student, should get to set the bar on how much understanding is acceptable. But all students have unique learning styles. For everything my professors told me in class, there were ten things I wanted to go home and study independently. I wanted the big picture, to make all the connections. My professor makes a passing comment on Latin grammar, I go teach myself Latin. The problem then arises on exam day when I only have that one tenth understanding of the exact material being tested.

Papers presented a similar problem. I would be expected to write 2000 words on a topic and I could manage 500. I could write 50,000 on the given topic as related to others but the system asks me to focus. Which means that I (and many many other students) have had to learn the bad habit of finding the least efficient ways to express information. Clarity is not so important as how much space the sentence fills on the page.

This is a rather dreadful side effect of the system, especially for a student of writing. During the summer after graduating I worked at a Tim Horton’s as a baker. It was a busy location so efficiency was key. The problem was that I didn’t know how to be efficient. My coworkers would come in from the front and say “10 Boston Creams” whereas I would make my entrance and proclaim with theatrical perfection, “Lo and behold, dearest coworkers and brothers in arms against the ravenous tide of donutivorous itinerants! All but the lactose intolerant weep this night in Boston! Two less a score are needed.”

I exaggerate but you understand the principle.

My dad would tell anecdotes of putting out newspaper ads where you paid by the word. It is a helpful way of thinking about brevity in writing.

Belaboring the ratio, for every ten wonderful things I learned at university there is one that I have had to unlearn; the system is not perfect. I have learned grammar, style, and the proper use of the semicolon but brevity is a lesson for no sooner than today.

And getting there will involve a fair amount of unlearning.

 

An appending thought: Longer semesters would allow slower (read “broader”) learners like myself to cultivate the broad, deep, and focused understanding that the word counts are asking for, but this is perhaps an unrealistic suggestion. Better to self-correct one’s own bad habits and do the best possible within the system.

It’s Still You

-Undertale Spoilers-

The artistic merit of video games is a subject I am quite passionate about. I grew up the video games and they’ve grown up with me. I was born as the medium was beginning to take off and find its identity and I found part of my identity through video games.

I have interacted with the medium my whole life and ‘interacted’ is the operative word. Uniquely among media, video games are characteristically interactive. This allows them to explore ideas like agency, ability, and choice like no other medium can. You do not just empathize with a character’s struggles, you enact them yourself. Your character’s struggles are your struggles, their challenges are your challenges.

Taking Undertale as an example, you do not simply lean back and wait for the main character to figure out how to peacefully resolve conflicts with the citizens of the underground. You, the player, have to figure it out. Every attack against the main character is an attack against you.

So at the beginning of the game you encounter a mirror and if you try to interact with the mirror then the text prompt reads “It’s you!”

its you

Then you go through the underground and bear the onslaught of confused or scared creatures, never striking back, turning the other cheek, finding the peaceful resolution, and towards the very end you encounter another mirror.

despite everything

Despite everything, it’s still you.

I still find this moving. Many of us will experience transitions or trials in life in which we find ourselves in alien circumstances and struggle with difficult questions. In Boethius’ words, we might feel “Banished from ourselves.” It is in those times that perhaps we ought to make some quiet space for ourselves. Pause for a moment, reflect, and look in the mirror and say “Despite everything, it’s still me.”

But it is more than that. It is not just still you, it is more you. It is a more developed you, a more experienced and wiser you with more choices behind you that have defined your character. And for the moment it may be hard but you choices are in your hands and so long as you choose wisely there will always be a better and better you waiting in the next mirror.

Despite everything, it’s still you. Remember that and hold onto it because the world cannot take that away from you. You have agency. The choice is in your hands.

Undertale’s protagonist, the medium of video games, myself, and the rest of us are all in the process of forging an identity. It’s a bumpy ride sometimes but if we make good choices we’ll never lose ourselves.

The Measure of a Man

I’ve grown up in a slightly insular community. For almost all my life I’ve been surrounded by Christians. I’ve largely known what behaviours to expect from people and what values we might hold in common.

I went to a public high school but I was never great friends with my classmates. I worked at jobs with Christians and I went to a Christian university with Christians. My first meaningful experience with non-Christians was last summer working at a Tim Horton’s and the experience was mixed. Many coworkers were unequivocally friendly but others (who mostly worked later shifts) were a bit harder to connect with.

One of the things I realized from the latter group is that different kinds of people can have vastly different behaviours and values.

And now that I’ve moved from my insular community into the bigger world, I reflect on this revelation and I worry about how I’ll be treated and what will be expect of me. Or, more concerning, how do I know that I’ll be treated with dignity and respect?

If we all have different behaviours and values, then what’s to guarantee that the secular world will acknowledge my worth and treat me right? I don’t know but I’ve taken up this as a creed: “The measure of a man is his kindness.” If I can treat others with kindness, I can hold my head up high. I don’t know well that will be received but it will be my assurance of my own dignity when I can’t rely on reciprocated religious values.

Now my greatest hope would be that all my non-Christian readers read this and think “Pfft. What are you talking about? Most non-Christians are super nice!” And I do recall those people who worked the morning and afternoon shifts at Tim Horton’s, always smiling and encouraging each other. That was a vision of a world I’d gladly live in. But there are also unkind people and I’m not sure how I’ll respond.

I suppose one thing I can do is remember the words of the psalmist who wrote “Even though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death, I will not fear evil for you are with me.” And if I’m not afraid of them, I can afford to be kind to them. And if I’m kind, I’m sure I’ll at least make a few friends.