No one teaches you how to handle failure––at least, not outright. Our parents focus on teaching us other values like honesty and integrity. No parent ever assumes failure would descend upon his / her child. Of course not. They envision success and achievement.
When failure does happen, it isn’t something we talk about candidly. If it is ever acknowledged, failure is the white elephant in the room, spoken of in hushed tones and through down-turned lips. Ironic, since it is rare for anyone to go through life without experiencing failure.
As a child, I rode my bicycle like most children do: with training wheels. I loved biking. I enjoyed the wind in my hair, the blood pumping through my calves, the ragged gulps of breath after a steep hill. I loved it all.
In due time, everyone else my age was unscrewing their training wheels and riding on big, grown-up bikes. Two wheels. I stayed on trainers. I’d only attempt at two wheels when night had fallen and there were no longer any cars on the street. Even then, I failed to keep balance. One night in particular, determined to ride a grown-up bike, I pushed myself off the ground, fumbled with the pedals, and landed on the pavement. Hard. I was old enough to cringe instead of cry through the pain of scraping nearly all the skin off my knees, and nearly all the pride off my chest.
After that, I stopped trying. I was convinced that after failing so much at something I put so much energy into––something I desperately wanted––biking couldn’t be for me. Why waste more effort on it? (Sound familiar?)
So, I gave it up.
It’s hard to pretend you’re unaffected by something that matters so much to you, but that’s exactly what I did. I found other things to do when my brother went biking. I averted my eyes when bikes raced by. I nonchalantly admitted I never learned how to bike––all the while ignoring the internal desire to feel the wind whipping through my hair, the blood pumping through my legs, the ragged breathing after a good race.
A few years later, I went on an outing with my high school varsity team. There was an old dirt road in Baguio where you could rent bikes or skates for a few hours. My team mate shoved a bike into my hands, saying it was my turn. Crap. Fearfully, (and completely prepared to make an enormous fool out of myself) I saddled myself in, and pushed off, hard. And, voila, I could bike.
Most of us were not taught to deal with falling short. We end up figuring out life’s heartaches in our own time, and we end up being hit with the reality of failing so hard we have no idea if we’re capable of getting back up again. Sometimes, we wonder if we should get back up again. Sometimes, we wonder if it’d be better to just stay down.
What I’ve learned is that success is not linear, and neither is failure. Maybe you’ll never fail an exam in medical school. Maybe you’ll fail them all. Maybe you’ll graduate on time. Maybe a year late. Maybe you’ll go do something else. I don’t know. Failure may be a detour. Failure may be the sign you’ve been looking for. I don’t know.
What I do know is that your journey is unique. Your journey is yours. Your journey is valid. One of the best medical students I know almost got kicked out of his batch. One of the best doctors I have ever met had really bad grades. Just like it took me years to finally learn to ride a bike, sometimes the process is long and winding and the destination doesn’t seem to be in sight at all. Maybe you’ll get a “voila!” moment. Maybe not.
So, if you fail, your story is not over. If you fail, you are not worth less. If you fail, you are allowed to curl up into a ball and cry. If you fail, you are allowed to feel all the things.
You can get back up.
There is still a place for you here.