I finished somewhere in the middle of the pack for my graduating class academically. It’s not something I’m proud of but it’s what happened. It was an underperformance. I left a lot on the table in high school. It’s something I regret but I can’t do anything to fix it now.
While I was in school, I just didn’t place enough importance on getting better. I remember the first time I didn’t see learning as an advantage. We were in third or fourth grade, split up into teams, playing this game to prepare for some test or quiz coming up. After being the only one to know the answer to the first few questions, my young teammates viewed me as their path to the victory and candy that went to the winner. It felt pretty good as they looked to me for answers that they weren’t sure about but had faith that I could lead our team to victory. I didn’t have all of the answers. When our team sputtered at the end of the game, my teammates responded with anger and frustration towards me. That day made a massive impact on me. If being smart just gave me a greater chance to fail to meet expectations, then why should I excel? Typing that out, it sounds pretty silly. But it had lasting implications on how I viewed learning.
It was an early life struggle of mine. It continued to be a battle that I handled poorly for years. When we come to these points in life, I think we enter into a fight or flight mentality. The fight or flight responses are usually considered in times of immediate distress but I think they apply to more mundane struggles too. Battling the perception of others, our financial failures, our fears of not being good enough. When it came to dealing with the pressure of academic failure, I choose flight. I made it easy for myself by not facing the challenge. I chose to set my own bar of expectation laughably low.
But I haven’t always chosen flight. At times, I’ve attacked a problem with a ferocity over and over, trying to use sheer force of will to blast through the problem at hand. While determination has benefited me, this approach can end up with a bruised head.
I believe that both responses have their place. Some hills are for dying and some hills are for retreating. I’m learning that neither response should be the end. Life gives us all sorts of experiences to learn from. Pain is the best teacher. When we take our lumps, we have a chance for growth. But only after evaluation and self-reflection. It’s in losing that the lessons come but only in honest moments of introspection that we can redeem those lessons. Hindsight is supposed to be 20-20, but we don’t always have to wait for the past to be distant to find value. It’s here that I find something of a third option. Instead of sprinting from difficult moments or continuing the insanity of continuing to do what I’ve always done, I hope to take the time to get better. I want to stare at my mistakes unflinchingly in the hope of better outcomes. I want to seek out the counsel of others and not just those who will affirm my views but ones who will challenge me. I will learn from losing.
I don’t want to wait until the chance is long gone to wonder about if I had just kept going. Viewing the struggle from a different angle might just give me a better plan for attack. I’ll still fail sometimes. Often, most likely. But I’ll view each misstep as a chance to get better footing.
Today, I am a note taker. My old pastor used to always say, “Note takers are history makers.” I had started taking notes a little while before hearing that but it reinforced not only that practice but the mindset of self-improvement. I went from not bothering to turn assignments in at all to listening to pastors, speakers, and podcasts that challenge my thinking and present new ideas. I value learning in a way I never really have before. I see it as investing in myself.