Freedom in Failure

“Preliminary examination results: Fail. Please meet with your committee members to discuss your exam.”

These are the words I have seen five out of the six times I’ve opened an envelope after pouring my soul into studying for a prelim exam. That’s right – my prelim pass rate is 0.1667. That’s not even good in baseball, where the standard batting average is somewhere around a 0.300. Were I a baseball player, the coach would have benched me a long time ago (probably after my first three prelims, on which I went “oh for three”, as they say). The fact of the matter is that I’ve benched myself several times. Too many times. But I learned a lot sitting on that bench.

My first year of graduate school was the first time that I truly grappled with math in a way that made me doubt my abilities, and failing both prelims I attempted at the end of that year only served to cement the feeling that I wasn’t cut out for grad school. I cried – a lot. I assumed my professors and colleagues saw me as a failure. But I pressed on through the next semester, and when the next round of prelims rolled around I got off the bench, grabbed my bat, and went to the plate again.

But I struck out again. And I didn’t understand. Because I had given up most of my Christmas break to study for this test. I had employed better strategies, I was more focused, and I had grown. But I saw that same four letter word in the envelope again: fail. And the worries that everyone at school viewed me as a failure came back again. I went home and I cried. Again.

Leading up to that second round of prelims, school had started once more, and suddenly I was a second-year, which meant that the new first-years started looking to me for advice. They started asking me questions as if they thought I knew something. Little did they know, I was still only marginally less confused than they were. And the dreaded question came: “which prelims have you passed?”

“Well… um… you see… about that…” What was I going to say? Would they take me seriously if I told them that I hadn’t passed any? Would they ever want my advice or help again? I decided to be honest, and at first it was hard. But gradually it became easier, and I wasn’t only honest about it, I was open about it. Slowly but surely I embraced the fact that I had failed and I got comfortable talking about it.

And, oh, how much freedom I felt. You see, when we hide our failures, when we keep them locked away from curious coworkers and friends and family, we must stay vigilant. We must put up a front so that the world thinks we are perfect and have it all together. We have to fight every day to maintain an unrealistic image. It’s exhausting and it only perpetuates the problem, as others begin to think that failure has its sights set on them and them alone.

But when we unlock the door and let even a small light in the room, it banishes the darkness. Sure, it hurts at first. But our eyes adjust and suddenly everything is clear. And when we share that with others, it gives them permission to fail. It gives them permission to let that guard down and be vulnerable and, dare I say it, human.

Now, failure isn’t as scary. Because I’ve seen it, I’ve felt it, I’ve experienced it, and I’ve come out on the other side. This doesn’t mean the fear doesn’t creep back in. It does. Frequently. In fact, I’m writing this as I decide which prelim to attempt this coming January, and I feel a keen sense of trepidation.

But we give power to failure when we don’t talk about it. We give it power when we hide it. So I write this to leverage the power for my good and the good of those around me. To remind myself why I don’t have to be afraid. To remind YOU why you don’t have to be afraid. Because you’re not alone in your failure, friend. And neither am I.

About Deborah Wilkerson

Deborah is a third year mathematics graduate student at the University of Kentucky. Her mathematical interests lie in the field of number theory. When not studying, you can find her reading, shopping, or baking.
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