I’m like everyone. I don’t like failing. I decided at an early age that I loved success and I hated failure. Because I am gifted in some areas and not so gifted in others (I was a straight A student and a really lousy athlete), by the time I was 18, I had gotten into an Ivy League university and I didn’t play any sports or exercise at all. Outside of academics and part-time jobs, I was literally devoid of hobbies. There was nothing in my life that I did or tried simply for fun. I decided I wasn’t allowed to be that frivolous or that it wasn’t safe to play games I couldn’t win. That’s how far off the deep end I’d gone into the abyss of people pleasing, perfectionism and positive reinforcement. So I stuck to school. I was good at that. Until one day, I wasn’t.
The year was 1992. The location was LSE (The London School of Economics and Political Science). I was there for my junior year study abroad, mired down deep into a bunch of economics classes, for which truly I had no passion. The course in question: International Trade. My teacher was young, scruffy, and always had a scarf draped around her neck, not for fashion, but because she seemed to always have a cold and to be running late. She appeared disheveled and aggravated most of the time. My perky American disposition washed over her like water on an oil slick.
She handed back my first paper of the semester without so much as a pulse. And maybe that’s because there was a BIG FAT RED “F” on it. I’m sorry, excuse me? An F! No. That’s inconceivable. That’s actually impossible. I don’t fail anything. I don’t even get Cs. Maybe a B on a bad day, but never, ever an F. Are you high woman? Stoned? Was the oxygen to your brain cut off by that scarf?
What made it worse was that some of my classmates, who had turned in their papers late, hand written on torn out sheets with coffee stains on them (no joke) had gotten A’s. Blink Blink. What in HELL was going on?!
I met with my teacher after class, immediately.
“It’s waffle,” she said.
“It’s waffle. Pastry puff. It this were a marketing class you’d have gotten an A. It’s pretty. I like the table of contents and your graphs, but the content is fluff. It’s poorly thought out, there’s no substance, no analysis, no supporting evidence and zero execution on your theories.”
I went to the pub afterwards and ordered a beer and cried. I was shell shocked. I was one month into my life in London and had an entire year there to go and I had come out of gate crashing into a dark black hole. I had so many reasons to feel afraid and the biggest one said this to me over the phone:
“We’re not spending tens of thousands of dollars for you to be there to fail school. One more result like that and we’re flying you home.” My father never minced words. Truthfully, our family didn’t have the money to send me to Columbia University or to LSE that year. It was placing an enormous strain on my parents, especially my Dad who’d already had one major heart attack. There were reasons, good ones, why I’d always been a good girl and a good student. I had people I owed. But I had also never let them down. I had to take a hard cold look at myself and find out what had happened. I started soul searching and got down to some real answers.
1) Give It Your All: I hadn’t given it my all on that assignment, and I knew it. The truth was I had gotten really comfortable with a formula for higher level-ish cruising, putting out a certain amount of effort and expecting a certain amount of results. I knew if I glossed it up with stylish presentation, it would earn flying colors. Where I’d come from, marketing in fact did matter.
2) Don’t Cheat Yourself : Substance does matter. Real knowledge, real learning, the quest for real truth is what school – and life! – is all about and when we cut corners, we literally only cheat ourselves and waste everyone’s time. This was my opportunity to learn that I was pissing away when I missed the chance to learn.
3) Great Ideas Don’t Need Fancy Dressing : When brilliant minds flush out great ideas, they air lift like a helium balloon and inspire others. Those students who hand wrote their papers in a mess of torn paper, with coffee stains on them and delivered late? They were actually brilliant, and nothing muted their shine. That teacher’s priorities were in order.
4) Accountability To Ourselves : Yes, we all have parents we want to please, but the person we really need to please is ourselves. That teacher that I cursed showed me that when I skimmed by on shiny waffle, I was letting myself down.
She never did let me make up that paper, either. She held me to the consequences of my actions. From that moment on I threw myself into my school work in a way that I had never done prior. LSE taught me how to learn in ways I hadn’t. It also taught me my fifth and most important lesson.
5) Failure Doesn’t Kill You. It Makes you Better : if you’re brave enough to throw yourself back into the ring, a failure morphs into a lesson and all lessons learned are successes. Even though I walked out of that class without the A grade I’d become accustomed to I earned a bigger reward in knowing I could bounce back, shake up my internal beliefs about how to do things, and see the intrinsic value in the art of what you’re doing and why.
It’s been a very, very long time since that class, nearly 30 years. The sting of the big fat red “F” left a temporary wound, but it gave me a lifetime beauty mark. I still don’t play any team sports, because Abby Wambach I am not, but I do take yoga and barre classes, ski, bicycle, work out at the gym and go hiking now regularly. I’ve picked up a few hobbies too, because the truth is it’s all stuff I enjoy and it makes me better even if I’m not great at it. The point is to always keep learning, always keep trying your best. I’m the only one assigning the grades anyway and as long as I’m giving it my all and willing to keep trying, it’s a perfect score.
Kirsten Sharett is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School. She’s a storyteller, writer, former journalist and personal essay writing coach who relocated to N.J. after 25 years in New York City.