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The worst thing that ever happened to me academically in my 13 years of public school was getting an A- in 10th grade Algebra II – in 7th grade.
I nearly had a mental breakdown. My mom threatened to hold me back a grade. And after that, I neurotically cultivated my A’s like they were my most precious possessions. Looking back, I guess they kind of were. In my mind, to achieve anything less was synonymous with failure, which meant I would have to forfeit my hopes and dreams and go live in a van down by the river.
Dramatic, I know, but that was my reality, as I’m sure it’s many of yours going into college applications. At this juncture, an A- could be devastating. A B+? Unthinkable. Your grades could mean the difference between flipping burgers at McDonald’s and making millions on Wall Street.
However, my senior year of high school, something happened that sent me reeling off my axis of academic-excellence-means-all into freshman year of college. I was confused, devastated, and questioning everything I had previously deemed unquestionable.
My senior year of high school, two friends of mine passed away: one from a hit-and-run, and another from a suicidal jump off a freeway overpass near our neighborhood. I had grown up with these kids, shared my lunch with them, sat next to them on the bus. To have both of them pass in such quick succession was unthinkable.
My freshman year of college, one of my suitemates – someone with whom I lived closely, ate, watched movies, and hung out, died from an overdose of antidepressants – another suspected suicide. There was one other suicide that had already occurred earlier on in the year.
My sophomore year of college, yet another one of my high school classmates passed away from a hit-and-run.
Most recently, one week into my junior year of college, another classmate, a new college freshman, passed away before my eyes when her bike rolled under the back tires of a cement truck.
These are landmarks on a bleak panorama of visceral and inconceivable loss, a panorama with which I am now familiarizing myself unwillingly, but inexorably.
Looking back, I recognize how callous my behavior and how narrow-lensed my perspective on what was important and crucial were. As I’ve become intimately acquainted with loss in a way I wasn’t then, I realize now what I failed to then: I have a lot of growing up to do.
There wasn’t a “Life Lessons You’ll Inevitably Learn the Hard Way” elective; there wasn’t a “How to Deal with Grief and Failure (Because You Will Even if You Think You Won’t)” AP or IB requirement. High school – and college, for that matter – is really bad at teaching some of the most important life lessons.
But like it or not, everyone experiences loss, sometimes of close friends. Everyone experiences failure.
So even though I’m only a college junior (and a young one at that), here are four Noble Truths (channeling my inner Buddha) that I’ve learned so far about the realities of growing up.
1. Put things in perspective. (Will it matter in 10 or 20 years?)
I distinctly remember taking the SAT in 7th grade just for funsies (but actually to see how much I needed to study in the next three years prior to taking it when my score would actually stick and no longer have the option to be erased). I scored a 2000, and freaked out because I didn’t break 700 on a single subject (this was when the SAT was on the 2400, 3-subject + essay grading scale). I felt, to put it very simply, like a failure.
My dad, ever the pragmatist, managed to calm me down by asking a single question.
“Erika, just think about it this way – will this actually matter in 20 years?”
The answer to that was no. However, that didn’t stop my eye from spasming uneasily every time I received a grade on a test or assignment that was anything less than an A. In my mind, my future was so tenuous that a single misstep could result in future unemployment. I think that at the time, I was too young to truly let my dad’s intended message sink in.
It wasn’t until I got my first C on a major midterm in college and called home crying that it sank in. Because instead of being angry or disappointed, my parents were surprisingly blasé about something I considered to be a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.
My dad told me that on his first college midterm, he received a D. He, like I, had studied hard. However, my dad had the advantage of 35 years of experience over me, and asked me again, “Will this matter in 20 years?”
I looked at my dad, who had gotten a D on his first midterm and 40 years later stood as a successful Chemistry PhD and environmental scientist, and for the first time, realized that I would be okay.
2. Don’t avoid failure; seek it (because it’s a growth opportunity)
Growing up, a large part of my identity was tangled up in my relentless drive to succeed, to be the best, to win at everything by being better than anyone else at it. It was almost like each time I failed to do so, a part of my identity would be crushed as well. It wasn’t until college that I began to learn one of the most important life lessons: to embrace failure.
Just like you learn better if you get something wrong first and learn why you got it wrong, rather than just getting (or guessing) it right from the get go, I realized that not succeeding on my first attempt was not only humbling (something that I desperately needed), but also a learning opportunity.
In my eyes, failure is a very stigmatized word. I always interpreted it to be wholly negative, and avoided at all costs. However, I now realize that failure can also be synonymous with progress, which is much more important than success. As long as I possessed the willingness to learn from my mistakes (instead of plugging my ears and crying “lalalalala that didn’t just haaaa-ppen”) I began to grow in character, fortitude, and intellect (instead of just intellect).
3. What is truly important in life?
Suffering through so many deaths of my peers was truly a jarring experience – not only because of the grief at their passing, but also because I was made aware of my own mortality.
For months in my second semester of senior year in high school, I stumbled around in an existential fog. How long did I have to live? What was my purpose in life? Was there even a purpose in life for me to seek?
For the first time, I realized that my life was not governed entirely by my own actions or choices. Sometimes, stuff happens, and sometimes, that stuff really, really sucks.
I now identify with clichés like “Live your life to the fullest” when I used to view them as nothing more than gag-inducing platitudes. I realize that no matter how hard I pursue personal excellence, success, or that one gym in Pokémon Go, at the end of the day, those aren’t what matter the most to me.
I’m now emotionally mature enough to realize that relationships are more important than grades. If a friend calls me in need the night before I have an important midterm, I don’t ask them to call back – instead, I’m there for them. I call my family, with whom I am close, every week when I used to shun them in lieu of studying or partying. And as I grew as a person, I realized how emotionally stunted I had allowed myself to become.
Because at the end of the day, to me, personally, getting good grades and becoming gainfully employed are merely means to an end. What really matters, and is important, are my family and friends. If I had only one day to live, I wouldn’t spend it studying for my final – I would spend it with those I love and those who love me.
This is not to say that grades and academics are not important. Rather, looking back through the broader lens through which grief, loss and failure have carved out for me, I recognize that the “ultimate” label that I placed on them, the way with which I viewed them as my salvation, was small-minded and immature.
High school equipped me with many things: the academic know-how to be semi-successful in college, the ability to socialize with a wide variety of people from different backgrounds and life experiences, and a passion for learning and knowledge.
What high school failed to equip me with was the ability to reconcile and internalize loss in a healthy manner. It failed to inform me that no one who thinks they’re on top of the world and so mature and so ready for college is actually on top of the world, mature, or ready for moving 3,000 miles away amongst students equally as high-achieving (if not more so) than they.
I don’t take life for granted. I realize that every breath I take is a gift that someone else doesn’t have. I live not only for myself and my personal gain, but to honor my friends and family members who don’t have that opportunity anymore. Knowing that I’m doing so was my personal way of reconciling and healthily internalizing my grief.
Through me, my friends live on.
4. The pursuit of perfection is purposeless.
It’s taken me years to realize that never allowing myself to fail was actually making me incredibly unhappy, sending me into manic spirals and depressive funks.
Perfection isn’t in human nature – blame it on Entropy, God, or the universe in general. Heck, blame it on all three. I now realize that my own worst enemy is myself. The way I treasured perfection was unhealthy; the pride I took in never making mistakes was futile.
Because every time I wasn’t perfect, every time I did make a mistake, I was crushed.
I now know that it’s better to focus my energies on recognizing that I can’t control life. In fact, I don’t want to. Spontaneity is what makes existence interesting; there can be no hills without valleys (speaking as someone who’s moved from the mountainous Cascades to the Illinois flatlands. Blech).
So perhaps we should focus on something other than perfection to pursue – philanthropy, humanitarianism, family, friends, love, relationships, the list goes on.
Because perfection is purposeless – it’s an abstract ideal that’s impossible to achieve. It’s better to focus on appreciating and utilizing what we are instead of what we could be.
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