What Failure Taught Me
Updated: Oct 6, 2020
(Sorry for the late upload, I didn't have access to the internet over the weekend. Hard to believe in this day and age)
During the four and a half years it took me to complete my Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering I accumulated a GPA of 2.78. I got a few As, many Bs and Cs, two Ds, and a single F. I got every grade you could possibly get before graduating which is not something most of the people who actually complete the program can say. This is not something that I am at all ashamed to admit, though some people believe I should be. But as most people who experience failure will tell you, you only really failed if you didn’t learn anything. Most people who have never failed a class will tell you that is just something people who fail say to make themselves feel better. Those people probably have to much pride too learn from their failures though.
When I failed Calculus 2 my second semester of college, I lost over a thousand dollars I had invested in the class and it set me back a half a year as far my track for graduation. All of my friends moved forward with their classes, so I no longer had study groups I could easily join, and I lost the one scholarship that I had. I had gone from being the valedictorian of my high school to being the kid who was held back in one year. The only thing that made me feel worse than failing was looking at the class curve. I was 2% away from a D in the class. Now a D is not a passing grade for Calc 2 but that meant that a C had been within reach. Going into the final I had a 48% in the class and I gave up thinking that there was no way I could pull myself out of that hole. The final was worth 30% of our final grade with a 52% ultimate being the bottom end of a C for the semester. It is easy to say I could have pulled my grade up that much but the truth is I didn’t even try. I thought my goal was out of reach so I gave up and I got exactly what I deserved.
The next semester came, the return of Calc 2 came with it. I ended up passing with a low B but that is enough to move on and I was happy. I had learned my lesson on giving up on myself. You never know when life is going to throw you a little extra help so never take yourself out of the race. More importantly though, I learned to ask questions. I know a lot of people that struggle to admit that they do not know the answer. I used to be just like that. The teacher would ask if everyone understood and no one would raise their hand and admit that they didn’t know: even though we were all lost. I didn’t have that problem moving forward. I had failed and everyone knew it, so what did I have to lose? I was in the front row of every class and every teacher knew my name by the end of the semester. The ability to ask a question, especially one that you think is stupid, is the most valuable thing I learned in college. I have never been asked an earnest question that I didn’t want to answer. My heat transfer teacher told me once when I asked him a very basic question that “There are no stupid questions, only stupid people too proud to ask them.” I have held that advice close in my professional career making sure to ask people, that are more intelligent than me, things that I don’t understand, and always answer questions I am asked, even if that answer is “I don’t know.”
The two Ds I got also taught me a valuable lesson. Our online portal, when I was a student, included a list of all the classes you needed to take in order to get your degree. As you passed the classes, they would turn green to show your progress. After getting a D in Differential Equations I was surprised to see the class show green on my portal so I went to the Dean of Engineering to verify that I didn’t need to retake the class. When I informed him, he seemed more surprised than I was, but after a few minutes of double-checking, he confirmed that I was good to go. Again, I was given advice I will always remember as he told me, “I guess Ds really do get degrees, just remember that what is important is to produce quality products, not perfect ones. Perfection is an ideal that is often strived for but never actually achieved.” I never fully understood what he meant until I entered the workforce full time. In college, we are given equations that are predesigned to have perfect solutions. The real-world doesn’t require perfection though. No one would want to drive a 1000 lb car over a bridge designed to support 1000 lbs. We design bridges to support way more weight to then they should ever be subjected to. This is called a factor of safety and it is how we protect against the imperfections in the engineering process. Don’t make a perfect product make one that will do its job repeatedly for a reasonable price. That is the quality we should strive to produce.
I probably would have learned all these things eventually even without failing a class. But by failing my classes and learning them earlier than later, I can learn something different from the experiences that would have taught me them otherwise or, better yet, avoid those situations altogether. Good judgment is the result of experience. Experience is the result of bad judgment.
I hope this message finds you in good health and of a sound mind. I am just another confused father from Kansas wondering… What is the value of failure?