When I was young and things didn’t go my way, my dad used to say “Ben, sometimes life sucks.” What he meant was this: Things don’t always work out the way you want them to, and it’s something you have to live with.
The majority of students at Northwestern, myself included, aren’t used to the ideas of failure and missed opportunities because these concepts were unfamiliar to us growing up. In high school, we excelled academically and were active members of our student body. While that’s all great, high school isn’t a good representation of what the “real world” is. But here’s the thing that most people don’t realize: neither is college.
I’d say to the class of 2017 that during the next four years here, there will countless times when you don’t succeed. You will have to forget about the fact that you were valedictorian in high school and volunteered for many hours at your local soup kitchen. You will have to realize that life doesn’t always go according to plan. It will be a stab at your ego.
In my first ever journalism class in Medill, I got a whopping total of four “Medill Fs” (automatic failure due to faulty fact-checking), one of which involved misspelling the name of a young girl in a fake obituary. The logic behind the F was that if I made that mistake in the real world, I probably would have been fired by the paper I was employed by and/or heavily scrutinized by the fictional family of the girl.
It was a total wake-up call for me because I realized that making it in the journalism business would mean I really had to get my shit together and avoid the silly mistakes that occasionally still plague me. I haven’t gotten a “Medill F” since then . . . knock on wood.
I once got the chance to talk to a well-known sports journalist who spoke at Northwestern my freshman year and learned something invaluable from the experience. He happened to know a ton about tennis, and so after he spoke I decided to ask him a question regarding the sport. I wanted to prove to myself that I could talk to someone I considered famous without sounding like a complete idiot. So, with measurable conviction in my voice, I asked, “How can you explain Victoria Azarenka’s inability to win the major tournaments even though she is the number one ranked tennis player in the world?”
I had recently watched Azarenka lose to Serena Williams in the 2012 US Open Finals, and couldn’t recall her winning a Grand Slam title.
He looked at me, annoyed, and responded with something like, “What about the two Australian Opens she’s won the last two years? Were those not enough for you?”
I was speechless; I had absolutely no idea about those two victories. To say I was humiliated would be an understatement. Here I was in front of a man I was hoping to emulate, and he made me look like a total amateur.
I remember just standing there, motionless, while he had in-depth conversations with some of my peers. I wished I could leave the party without looking like I’d just been majorly defeated.
While the emotional pain still stuck for the remainder of the day, I decided to take this experience as a learning opportunity for myself. Since then, I make sure to do research before entering an interview.
Other students have similar stories, whether they overslept a morning exam or were rejected by every fraternity they rushed. It’s up to them to get over it and move on; it’s one of the few things that they can control about the situation.
No one goes through their lives without failing. For some individuals, it occurs as often as once or twice a day and yet, it’s the many failures that can lead to ultimate happiness. Moreover, failing can sometimes be the wake-up call you really need. Let’s say that you were a “political whiz” in high school, so you became a Political Science major and signed up for Intro to Political Theory during Fall Quarter because you thought it would be an easy A. Politics was just something that came naturally to you, so you thought you could bullshit your way through the class without putting in any effort. Then the final grades came back in December, and you found out you got a D in the course. This “failure” would probably be a humbling experience, but it shouldn’t discourage you from continuing to pursue your chosen degree. If anything, it might give you the indication that if you want to pursue your intended career, you’re going to have to put in the hard work.
The same goes for everything else. You will likely experience a few breakups before you get married, and you might have to struggle through the daily grind in meaningless occupations before you find that dream job where getting up for work is something you look forward to each day.
Just because something was considered easy in high school doesn’t mean it will be a piece of cake at this university; just because something was finally learned in college doesn’t mean it will be a sure thing in the post-college beyond. Failure can happen to the most unlikely of candidates, at any time and in any thing, but it is ultimately a universal experience necessary for survival. So this Thanksgiving, be thankful for failing. I know I am.