Tales of your teacher’s failures

This post is for my students (or anyone who’s having a rough go in school).

Today, I’ve achieved what most people would consider academic success. Over the years, I’ve earned a doctor of business administration degree, two masters degrees, and a bachelor in science. There was a time before this string of successes, however, where, paraphrasing the words of Dan Pink, my performance placed me in the part of my class that made the top 90% possible.

Reflecting on my own experiences, and witnessing the experiences of thousands of students passing through my classes, I believe that in any endeavor where we push ourselves to grow, we inevitably encounter walls we must learn to navigate around. This is the story of my first encounter with such barriers.

Walls, walls, everywhere

My first wall hit me in second-year university. It seemed as though every course was a “weeder” course. Organic chemistry, biochemistry, calculus—all these classes were utter beasts. I flunked two semesters of analytical chemistry as well as intro genetics. When I did pass a course, it was by the skin of my teeth. Going into my third year, I managed to stop the bleeding. I did well enough to pass, but my grades were lackluster.

As I entered the later stages of my undergrad degree, the question of what happens after I graduate loomed. I got it in my head I wanted to work in the biotech industry and convinced myself I needed a masters degree to do so.

Therein arose another wall. As you might imagine, getting into graduate school requires good grades, of which I had very few. Moreover, in science, obtaining a graduate degree requires you to perform experiments. To do this, you need access to a lab. To gain this access, you need a professor to take you under their wing and give you a spot in their research facility.

Grad students, in short, are a cost to professors. Thus, not only do you need good grades, you need a professor who sees within you enough potential to incur the expense of bringing you into their lab. I doubt any professor knew my name, let alone saw potential.

Still, I was filled with naïve optimism. I believed if I had the opportunity to work with a professor, they would see my potential and offer to bring me on as a graduate student. To achieve this, I needed to get a summer job in a lab.

But—gah!—another bloody wall. Professors seldom have money to hire summer students out of their own grants. They only hire students that can obtain a grant of their own to pay their salary, and guess what kind of grades a student needs to get those grants. Grades better than I ever earned.

Naïve optimism, though, is powerful. Undaunted, I updated my resume, printed the transcripts of my grades, and knocked on doors throughout the science department. That’s when I met Dr. L and had a meeting that changed the trajectory of my life.

Dr. L (totally not his real name)

Dr. L had formed a company to commercialize a discovery he made. What a great fit, I thought. I wanted to work in biotech, and he was creating a biotech company. I finagled an interview for a summer job. This could open doors for me, doors to graduate school, doors to a career. Booya!

This is a reasonably accurate transcription of that interview.

Me: “Thank you for meeting with me. I think you are doing amazing work, and I feel I could be a great asset to your lab.”

Dr. L: “Mmm-hmmm. May I see your transcript?”

I pass it over. He reviews it. He shakes his head.

Dr. L (passing my transcript back to me): “I don’t think you have what it takes.”

And with that, the interview ended. Stunned, I stood in the hall outside his lab. Within me, fear and anger blossomed. Fear because for the first time in my life, I realized I might fail. I don’t mean fail my classes—I had already done that—but that I might fail to achieve my dreams. The world, I realized, did not owe me the future I envisioned for myself. The naïve optimism that had carried me this far vanished.

Anger accompanied my fear. My anger, however, was not directed at Dr. L. It was directed at me. I knew Dr. L was right—I didn’t have what it took. Moreover, if I were honest with myself, I knew why I was failing. My grades were mediocre not because I lacked intelligence, but because I lacked focus and discipline. I was more interested in parties and girlfriends than I was in studying. The future I envisioned was at risk because of my own choices.

Naïve optimism cuts both ways. It blinds you to barriers, thus allowing you to smash through them, but it also blinds you to your complicity in creating those barriers.

The path forward

After that meeting, I humbled myself. I finally admitted I had no idea how to succeed in university. Thus, I signed up for academic workshops, learning how to study, to take notes, to manage my time, to manage stress, and more.

My grades improved. Near the tail end of my degree, I started scoring in the A-range. Better late than never. I volunteered in a lab and convinced a professor to take a chance on me as a graduate student. This led me to the path that brought me here, today.

Things I’d like my students to know

  • Your grades are not who you are. They do not define you, and they do not define your future. You can always act to change your trajectory.
  • Through your own actions, you might fail to achieve the future you want. There is, however, power in this insight. The one thing you have control over is your actions. You can change your actions, and through that, you change your outcomes.
  • Sometimes, your teachers tell you things that are upsetting. That upsetting feedback is a signal you may have to change how you do things to achieve your dreams. It hurts to hear your work is inadequate. That feedback is, however, essential if you want to attain your goals.
  • To overcome a wall, you may need to learn new skills. I had to learn how to study, how to write exams, and how to write papers. Visit the learning center of your school, or do a Google search to fill in the skill gaps holding you back.
  • If you are struggling, you are in good company. Some of the most successful people have embarrassing failures behind them.

If you have failed and recovered, please share your stories. We need to dispel the illusion that success magically happens to the fortunate few. Your stories inspire others to rise to the challenges in their lives.

***

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