Quote of the Week 3: Do not fail by default

quote Jk Rowling

Hope you don’t mind that you’re getting J.K. Rowling quotes two weeks in a row, but this week has made me reflect on this one.

As a child, academics were a bit of a breeze. I was pretty much always the first to finish my school work in class, and with the exception of learning Long Division I don’t really remember having to work hard. I wasn’t great at art, I was terrible at any sport that involved upper body strength or hand eye coordination. But I was ok with that. Academia was my thing. Dance was my thing. So I was good with not being the best at drawing or putting a ball through a netted hoop. The only problem was that I rarely got challenged. It wasn’t until I got to my fourth year of high school and tried to get my head around quadratic equations (still can’t do them!) that I ever truly struggled to understand a concept. The rest of my classes were pretty much a breeze, and unless I enjoyed them I didn’t study for them. However, what it brought on was a completely paralysing fear of failure.

I played it safe with subjects that I found easy to pass until 2003 – when I decided to switch from Geography to a degree in Public Health.

My degree in Public Health if I had entered it from high school required me to have had two Maths and Sciences Highers. I didn’t have a single one. So though I found Biology easy to pick up, I still remember the shock of going into a university Statistics lecture. It was taught by straight maths professors who would post equations on an Overhead Projector and then pick on people in the lecture theatre to tell him how to work out the equations. The whole thing was spoken in a language of symbols that I had no concept of.

I bought three calculators that semester. Why? Because every time I got a calculator I’d walk into the next week of lecture to find out there was another special function I needed that mine didn’t have.

Every week I would go to the library with my statistics homework to be done for my next tutorial, and would end up in tears because it didn’t come naturally. I had no clue how to work it out. It was overwhelming, and I was terrified that I’d fail the course and that would be the end of my degree. I would have to go back to studying Geography with my tail between my legs with the word ‘numpty’ written across my forehead.

And then came a saviour in the form of a guy I knew from the Christian Union who was studying Maths and Physics. He was taking the same course as an extra credit. I will be forever grateful to him for his patience. Pretty much every week he would find me crying in the library over a sheet of statistics, and ask if I needed help, show me what the calculator buttons I needed were, and calmly explain each mathematic concept step by step until I was at least able to do one or two of the questions on my own. Meanwhile, I had a kick-ass tutor at the medical school who came up with all sorts of creative ways of helping us understand probability and other statistical things! Including a memorable class that involved chocolate bars in the shape of frogs.

It was only when I was scanning my university transcripts to apply for my postgraduate qualification last year that I realised out of all the courses I had taken that semester, my highest grade was for Statistics. I think I even came out the exam smiling, glad that I’d been at least able to answer some of the questions.

Somehow though, I redeveloped my fear of failure. I think it met up with my fear of rejection and they combined forces. Though the lack of funds was always contributing factor, the real reason it took me seven years before I applied to do my postgraduate qualification was because I was terrified of failure. And the reason I went to Glasgow was because I never wanted to get a higher level of qualification than I absolutely had to.

Going to Germany last year changed that, as I realised how dumb I was being. And so in December I made a decision that even though it seemed nuts, even though I didn’t have a job yet, and could never guarantee I’d have enough money to keep me going if another almost £2000 of tuition fees had to be found from my much depleted savings…that I would go for it and do my Masters.

This week I got confirmation that I would be allowed to do my research dissertation to get my Masters this summer.

I may fail. My research may be total crap. I may not get a great mark. I may end up with no money to keep myself fed and clothed. I may never get work after I finish.

But I decided that I was making a decision to not do it because I was afraid of failure (in university, in life) rather than trying something that I’m not sure I’ll do well at but could give me great skills and help me learn more. Maybe even help other people learn too.

I don’t know.

But I just want to say thanks for your speech J K Rowling. It’s one I go back to again, and again for a pep talk. And thank you Andy for all your stats coaching all those years ago too!

I don’t want to fail, but I definitely don’t want to fail by default because I don’t even bother trying.


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