The success of failure.

It was only a few days ago that I was sitting in one of the many grand halls in St Andrews, realising that I should be focusing on the quantum mechanics problem in front of me instead of bouncing about in my chair. I was surprised that I could remember how to derive the first-order energy correction of perturbation theory, having answered the question only a few hours before for revision. But the main reason for being so excited during an exam? I was trying to postpone the feeling of euphoria seeping out from my soul, brewed by the fact that this was the last exam of my undergraduate degree and I would be getting “soaked” in less than two hours time.

Being soaked is another typical St Andrews tradition, whereby your friends (although they could easily be enemies seeking revenge) come and throw water over you after the last exam of your undergraduate degree. I remember growing up in Oxford and observing flamboyant students covering each other in flour, eggs, party poppers (and probably champagne). My young teenage self could not wait to be one of them, and somehow that time has come and already gone. Although my soaking was not as extravagant as the Oxbridge counterpart, it was still overwhelmingly wonderful, friends postponing their travel plans to go home, others attending instead of revising for their last exams, in order to celebrate the momentous occasion with me. Afterwards a couple of friends joined me for a cocktail at one of the plushest locations in town and it was utterly exquisite, for the aptly named ‘serious zombie’ concoction that glided down my throat, but even more so for the puddle of water that I left beneath my chair.

I still don’t know for certain that I’ve passed my exams, and if I have whether I’ll be getting a 2:2 or a 2:1, it could be a very close call. What I do know is that I’ve done all I can, and I gave it my best shot at undertaking a degree in Astrophysics. You see, Physics was the only subject in High School that I ever got a B in, and it is probably the only subject that has put me in tears before an exam many more times than once. Others struggle to understand why I would want to tackle a subject which frustrates, agonises and has a tendency to make me hysterical. I’m not even sure that I can answer this question, no matter how much I ponder over it. Maybe I like a challenge, or the opportunities that Astrophysics brings are irresistible (i.e. travel), or I’m just stupidly passionate about Astronomy. It’s probably a combination of everything, which has likely lingered as I find myself in receipt of a scholarship for the AstroMundus masters programme commencing this October.

Sometimes I have found myself talking to people who say they only succeed at everything they do. This shocked me, so I probed further. It turns out that this was because they only ever try anything that they know they are good at, knowing that they will be successful, terrified of failure or being imperfect. This seems like a huge shame and a tremendous waste, missing out on all of the surprising twists and turns that life can take us, opting to turn down opportunities due to this aura of insecurity. I am immensely proud of my failures, and I don’t think that I could have achieved a fraction of what I have accomplished if it wasn’t for all of the things that went “wrong”. How can we expect to learn and grow if we make sure that we only succeed 100% of the time? Our achievements are surely that much more impressive if we consider what it has taken to get there.

I’ll never forget the first year maths module that I failed, how I thought it sounded really interesting to learn some pure math and proofs and suchlike. It turned out to be a complete nightmare, and I desperately tried to get out of retaking the exam giving the excuse that I couldn’t afford to pay the extortionate resit fee. The University wouldn’t let me get away with this, and happily covered the costs as I was left looking over my dastard notes, finding it hard to muster the will to revise once more. I did pass the second time around, and vowed to never take a pure maths module again. Ok, possibly not the best example of trying something, failing and loving it anyway, I guess not everything is for everyone.

More prominently, at the end of second year I didn’t get the grades I needed to do the Masters course in St Andrews, and was put on the Bachelors programme instead. And although I got the Canadian Bobby Jones scholarship, I was told that I shouldn’t go because I didn’t have the grades. I was stubborn, and pleaded my case, determined to go no matter what. I had already bought the flight and paid a deposit on a place, further reinforcing my obstinacy. I definitely suffered the consequences of a year abroad, scraping by in most of my modules, and I failed another course, this time on the Interstellar Medium. If it wasn’t for the most amazing professor there (who took me out for lunch once, and bought me shopping when I was ill), I wouldn’t have appealed, and I wouldn’t have passed by the skin of my teeth. Yes, I have a high chance of graduating with a 2:2 because of my time abroad, despite never having worked so hard in my entire life, but I’d still do it again because experience outdoes any degree classification by far. I could take a tangent here and rant about how people are too obsessed with studying for the sake of getting a job, instead of the other way around, but I’ll refrain. For now.

Who knows where the future leads, but I’m sure that I’ll keep on crying over Physics, scraping by exams and fighting for the right to continue studying for reasons that I cannot explain. As long as I can keep on trying new things, regardless of success or failure, I’m happy.

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