On Failing, Fear, And Learning to Learn Better

I’m halfway through my first semester back in college. So far, I’ve:

  • borrowed, begged, and asked for help to pay my bills without a dayjob.
  • come down with a cold that turned into bronchitis, which meant I…
    • couldn’t go to a doctor because I no longer have health insurance.
    • spent 3+ weeks sleeping.
    • got behind in some of my online classes and had to drop my traditional (in-person) classes, because I couldn’t manage the 35 mile drive EACH WAY to campus while sick.
  • added new online classes to keep my status above full-time.
  • took quizzes, tests in all of my classes; did homework; participated in discussions – basically, all the parts of a class, with a mix of grades from As to Cs.
  • figured out how much I didn’t know about going to college with my life the way it is now.

Or to put it another way: I struggled. I set goals I didn’t meet. I was sick and exhausted, I fell behind, I left myself down (and probably some other people, too), and I felt like a failure.

Because, to be honest, in some ways I am failing. I am not doing as well as I had hoped, making this transition back to college. That’s just a fact.

Yesterday, I wanted to give up. It wasn’t the first time, but it hit me hard. I took a huge risk, going back to college now, doing without a dayjob. I’d hoped to do more freelancing, but being sick meant I haven’t pursued any new work for weeks, so I haven’t even had that income. I’ve gotten a surprising amount of support – thank you! – and with that comes the internal pressure of not wanting to let anyone down. If I don’t do well this semester, I’ve wasted this time, this opportunity. Put my son through this for nothing. Leaned on people who were there for me without anything to show for their faith in me.

It’s tempting to quit. Scrap this whole semester. Recover from being ill. Catch up on everything I’m behind on. Start fresh next semester.

Yesterday, I told my person how awful I was feeling. His response was perfect: that it sucked to feel that way, but I wasn’t a failure, I wasn’t alone, and we’d sit down and talk about where I’m at, and what I need. Just it’s okay to feel defeated and let’s sort out where you really are vs what you’re feeling and you’re not giving up, so make a plan based on your options now.

That’s what I’ve been trying to do all along, and what I needed to be reminded of. I’m not giving up. I’m not running away. Just because it’s harder than I expected or no fun or I’m not succeeding as easily as I want – those aren’t reasons to quit. That’s not who I am.

Instead, I reconsidered the goal posts. (It might be three semesters at community college before I can transfer, instead of two. Would that really be so bad? No, I guess not.) I thought about why I’m struggling. (I definitely need to study more, and research beyond the textbook, to find the information the class assumes I know but I actually don’t.) I thought about why I had certain expectations of myself, and why I judge myself as harshly as I do. (As my friend Mary told me, “You’re not failing. You’re tired. And that’s okay.” Until she said it, I wouldn’t have seen myself that way.)

As much as I hate to feel like a failure at this moment, I think I can learn from all of this. The lessons for me will be: don’t give up, and learn how to be a better student.

Going to school now is not like when I was in college before, and assuming I could easily pick up where I left off is part of what threw me off course. Another part of falling behind was that some of my classes are second or third classes in a series I started when I was in college six or so years ago… I’d thought that because I’d aced those courses before, I’d be okay now. It turns out, I’d forgotten things I didn’t know I was missing.

In some cases, like my International Business class, the work is mainly conceptual. I can read the textbooks and consider the ideas presented, and I’m able to access the information when I take the test. Easy. No problem. In other classes, Accounting and Econ, it’s more terms and formulas that I haven’t been using. Like taking Spanish 2 a decade after you got an A in Spanish one, without so much as having asked “donde es la Bibliotheca?” one time in between.

As of late last night, I’ve caught up on all of my schoolwork. There are things I can’t make up, which will affect my final grades, but going forward I can stay on top of my assignments. I’ve looked at how I study, how I plan my work, and figured out what I need to change. I’ve had to create a new system of tracking what’s due, and what I need to study for. I print out study guides and watch instructional videos. I stay up late to take online tests after my son’s asleep. I examine every wrong answer, every mistake, every failure.

We’re not always going to immediately succeed. Not at college, or writing a novel, or anything in life. Mostly, when we fail, we want to stop trying and do something else. Some people, that’s all they do: run from one thing to the next to the next, looking for that instant and easy success, followed by the admiration of others, and if they don’t get it, they move on again. I can’t do that, not if I ever really want to change my life.

I am tired of failing. I have so done much of it the last couple of years. But when I stop trying to sweep my mistakes under the rug, I start learning from them. Learning to accept that I’d screwed up. (Everyone does.) Learning how to fix my problems. Learning to be brave, to try new things, take bold chances. Learning how to learn better.

I may not get all As this semester, and I may feel dumb a lot of the time as I try to learn this stuff, but I’m not alone, and I’m not quitting.

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