Perfection. Something time and time again we realize is unattainable, but for some reason, a concept we still strive for.
That was me, at least. Going into college, I don’t think I ever accepted something in my life that I viewed as personal failure. Making a bad throw on varsity baseball. Ending a conversation with someone on a bad note. Forgetting an appointment or showing up late to class. Every misstep I made I worked obsessively to correct so I never made it again.
And grades. Oh, boy, grades.
It’s part of what made me work so hard to get into college. The idea that anything less than “passing with flying colors” would lead to my demise. I studied tirelessly for small quizzes. Stayed up late reviewing the same material when I knew it was already engraved on my brain like a tattoo. All due to a constant fear of failure as a sickness that couldn’t be cured.
And it worked. I knew that by pushing myself far past my limits, I never had to worry about coming close to getting a less-than-optimal result in return. Sure, it may have been excessive, but I didn’t care. It led to me feeling like I was as close to perfect as possible, which made it all worthwhile.
Then I sat down in Economics 101 at the University of Michigan. Whoa.
I get the syllabus on day one, and while these weren’t the exact words, they certainly felt like them: “The course will consist of 99.9% exams and .1% anything not exam related.”
To me, this translated to “You can’t f–k up once.” And while it was intimidating, I trusted my process. Work more than you need, and you’ll get the perfect result.
So I went to every lecture. I did the homework. I read the textbook. I did everything I thought I needed to do to prepare myself for the frightening first exam.
The day we received our grades for that exam, I walked past friends who were leaving the office.
“What’d you get?” I asked.
“A-. Easy stuff,” said one friend.
“Barely studied and I got a B+,” said another.
Stress then relieved, I walked into the office and checked the score I was certain would be stellar. Shit. C+. Barely passing. And I couldn’t explain why.
I felt like the world was caving in on me. My pillars of perfection began to collapse, and in their places arose cheesy, flashing, Las Vegas-style billboards that said, “Welcome to College, something you clearly know nothing about.” My formula for how to succeed had just revealed itself to be flawed. And the worst part was, I knew people were succeeding doing half the work I was putting in.
But I wasn’t going to let one misstep affect my strategy, my game plan, my foundation. It was just one test, and I still had the whole semester left. Trust your system. Trust your system. I worked harder. Studied longer. Read deeper. Threw the material in my face so much faster I was surprised my brain didn’t explode.
As the semester went on, things didn’t seem to get better–maybe a marginal improvement here, some more backtracking there–and nothing stuck. I wasn’t retaining and my results weren’t changing.
Flash forward to the final. Despite my struggles, I had managed to hold a borderline grade between a B and a C, with this last exam left to determine which I would receive. Given the way the class had gone, escaping with a letter grade officially defined as “above average” would be perfectly fine.
I had bolstered my defenses by studying an additional week before. Discussed military strategy with the General in his office hours. Prepared the troops by making sure I got plenty of rest the night prior. I entered the final battle as ready as I could be, putting the result in the hands of fate.
And fate wasn’t pretty.
I bombed the exam and nearly failed Economics 101, putting a sense of permanence to the worst letter grade I had received in a class, ever.
I heard a piece of advice from a good friend once to, as he put it, “never deny the man a chance to hit rock bottom.” However, I had never put much thought into it previously. Never had I found myself submerged below the surface. And while I understand there are so many more things in life that can affect someone negatively outside of a classroom and how fortunate I am that I don’t have problems with those things, at times your own rock bottom isn’t there for everyone to see. Throwing yourself into the epicenter of your personal dark hurricane can often spit you out a person better at handling a twister like it in the future.
So I failed. I tanked. I did something that I devoted my life to avoiding previously. But I also learned that screw-ups can be put behind you. That perfection is maybe impossible. I worked my ass off, and while I may not have received my expected payout, I know I did all that I could. Maybe I’m just not born to be an economist.
I came back after summer break with a mentality where fear of the below-average letter grade was nowhere to be found. Where my actions weren’t governed by the “What-if?” but rather the “Why not?”
My transcript that semester demonstrated the best grades I’d ever received. How’s that for permanence?