At the end of my first semester of college, I had an awful GPA, no friends, bad skin and mild depression. The way I felt at the end of that semester was a stark — almost comical — contrast to how I felt in the beginning.
I was excited to move to a new city, live on my own and go to a fancy, glamorous school. I rode the wave of my friends excited comments: “You’re so lucky you get to move out,” “Oh my god, you’re going to have so much fun,” “Send me pictures!”, “Don’t forget about us!” The very last thing I expected to follow the greatest achievement of my life was the greatest sadness I ever felt.
But that certainly was not the first time I felt like a failure.
In my sophomore year, I failed an exam for the first time ever. Then another…and then, yet another. Granted, they were all orgo exams, so I convinced myself that they didn’t really count —, but I wasn’t sure if medical schools would feel the same way.
In fact, in the mere three years that I’ve been at Cornell, I’ve had more mishaps and mistakes than should be statistically possible: I’ve locked myself out of my apartment in the middle of the night, gotten fired from a job at the dining hall after one shift, had a fight with my first close college friend that ended in disaster, had an emotional breakdown for every day of the week, missed the bus on my way to take a final, got rejected from countless (and I mean countless) internships and research positions, had an academic advisor tell me I should “reconsider being premed,” forgotten about several extremely important financial aid deadlines, begged my TA to help me pass a class…the list goes on.
In the beginning, every time I would fail at something, I’d feel terrible about myself. It didn’t matter if it was something as insignificant as forgetting my pencil bag at home, because in my mind it was just another item to add to my growing list of shortcomings. I had imagined myself becoming a mature, independent and sophisticated adult in college, so why was couldn’t I get through a single day without something going wrong? I’d look around and think why is it so hard for me to do the things that are so easy for everyone else? Why am I even at this school? Everything felt like it was too much to handle, and I found myself craving the familiarity of home, where nothing was outside of my comfort zone and I didn’t have to feel so pathetic.
Then, in my junior year, one of my friends was supposed to fly to a conference in California for the weekend and she missed her flight. She called me crying, completely hysterical and kept repeating “What am I going to do?!” I tried to calm her down and told her that the worst case scenario would be that she would have to get on the next flight in the morning and would arrive later than expected…so what was the big deal? It was strange hearing my own voice saying such rational things, because I knew that if I were in her position, I’d be freaking out just as much — if not more — than she was. But it worked. I ended up picking her up from the airport and we went to Chipotle, got frozen yogurt and she was able to get on the next flight just four hours later.
Following that incident, slowly but surely, I stopped being so afraid of things not going as expected. It was like a switch in my mind flipped; all my failures stopped making me feel less confident, and instead made me feel more confident. I had gotten myself into so many “worst case scenarios” and yet… somehow I survived. I had forced myself to get through days when I felt hopeless and helpless and sick to my stomach. And while in the moment, it was the worst experience imaginable, at least I now know that if it ever happens again, I can get through it.
The truth is that nobody tries to fail at anything. It’s just something that happens. You can work hard and plan meticulously for hours or days or even years and yet, things will still go wrong. But the key is realizing that you can work out what doesn’t work out. Once you start allowing yourself to be just as human as everyone else, you stop feeling like every mistake leads to a dead end. If there’s anything that I’ve found to be true, it’s that the more failures you experience, the better you become at dealing with them.
Faiza Ahmad is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Fifth Column runs every other Wednesday.