TTLG: Failure & Fungi — Accepting Imperfection
It was 6 p.m. on the first Friday of fall term my senior year. It was a gorgeous end-of-summer day, and campus was buzzing with the excitement of everyone’s return and the start of a new year. Most of my friends were already drunk. I was lying on the floor of the Life Sciences Center laboratories having a panic attack.
The lab was empty, and I was hyperventilating on the cold tile floor staring up at the fluorescent overhead lights. On the lab bench above my head, the microscope was still turned on, and a pile of fungus-covered tree roots sat in a bucket next to the scope. For the beginning of my lab work for my biology thesis, I was already supposed to have collected a gazillion fungus-covered root tips from a bucket of samples by the end of the first week. It was at this moment that I realized failure could be a possibility.
You are probably thinking, “What kind of psychopath has a mental breakdown over fungus-covered roots?” I’d say, me. I would most certainly have a breakdown over fungus-covered roots. But this moment was about far more than the sheer amount of lab work I had to complete. It was my deep, gut-wrenching terror at even the slightest possibility of failure.
Like many people at Dartmouth, I grew up as a hyper-perfectionist kid who never turned in homework late, never made a mess and never lost a game of sharks and minnows (a fact of which I am still particularly proud). I rarely pushed myself out of my comfort zone and would work my a— off just to avoid any possibility of doing less than I was “supposed to” in school, sports and pretty much everything else. I followed the perfect narrative of the over-achiever, which culminated in the blissful suburban pinnacle of getting into my dream college.
Seeing as how all of you got here too, it’s safe to assume that over the course of your childhoods and teenage years, you also did something “right.” You probably pushed yourself, worked hard and had it pay off in the form of an awkward, overly-firm handshake with College President Phil Hanlon in the first week of your freshman year. Most Dartmouth students are well-acquainted with success in some form.
However, while I lay on the LSC floor, I certainly was not succeeding. In my breakdown and terror at the possibility of not meeting expectations, I felt failure deeply and profoundly. Until Dartmouth, I don’t think I truly knew failure.
This was not the first time I failed at Dartmouth. Looking back, I think the first time I failed was in my freshman fall during a performance with my improv group, the Dog Day Players. Joining an improv group was an absolute shove out of my comfort zone, and leaving that zone was something I certainly did not do in high school. Then, during this one show, as a part of a group in which my sole purpose is to be funny, I was distinctly not funny. I flopped. It felt like my entire self-worth hinged on the fact that I was unable to turn a scene about gremlins running a business office into anything even remotely humorous. I cared so much about the group and my newfound opportunity to enact my secret love for comedy, but I felt like I had left my comfort zone only to get smacked down to the floor with a baseball bat.
Another moment that stands out to me--perhaps my first true sob-heaving failure--is when I was in SART 25, “Painting I” during my sophomore fall. I care deeply about creating art and pushing my creative boundaries, so I placed a lot of importance on the work I made in the class. I spent dozens of hours on the first painting of my final series and created a piece I loved and was incredibly proud of. During our class critique that day, I proudly hung up and explained the labor of love that was my finished product. My professor stared quizzically at it for a few seconds, paused and matter-of-factly told me, “I don’t like it.” She then proceeded to explain why it was a fairly simple painting with little color creativity. The second I left class, one might say I lost my f—ing sh—.
How could I put so much effort and time into something just to have someone else reject it? To have them invalidate all of my effort and skill in three minutes? Why was I not perfect?
This was the general mindset with which I entered my senior thesis: Aim for perfection. Even after that first Friday breakdown, I got shot down again and again by the fickle reality of doing science. Repeated and massive failure is literally inherent to the scientific process. One particular winter evening, an experiment on which I had spent dozens of hours failed before my eyes. Once again, I sat hyperventilating and ugly-crying on the floor of the LSC bathroom at 11 p.m. I was no longer panicking at the fear of failure like I had been in the fall. I was panicking because this time, I had actually failed. I could no longer avoid it. No matter how many hours I put in, no matter how much I cared about and loved science, no matter how much I tried, I was not perfect.
I firmly believe that these moments have made me a better person. Failure not only humbles you but makes you realize what you truly care about and pushes you to pursue that. The past four years at Dartmouth have made me realize that you experience your biggest failures in what you care about the most. Those failures hurt you so much because you care. I’m incredibly grateful that Dartmouth has pushed me out of my comfort zone in many ways, and by pushing me out of my comfort zone, has allowed me to fail.
I’ve grown greatly out of these failures. Flopping in Dog Day shows taught me how to improve and work better with the other members of the group. My improv skills have grown exponentially since those failures, and I am able to confidently walk on stage knowing that I can produce something funny and that every other person in the group always has my back. I am still incredibly proud of that painting, and my artwork has grown and evolved since my sophomore fall into a body of work that encapsulates my artistic voice. Although I ultimately dropped a whole portion of my thesis, I’m still producing a project that I’m really excited about and interested in.
I’m not going to pretend that I’ve now totally accepted myself and overcome my failures. I still struggle every day to accept who I am. But my failures at Dartmouth have helped me grow in ways I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t challenged myself. So go ahead, take your time at Dartmouth to bomb a show, screw up a painting, cry on the bathroom floor. You don’t have to be perfect. I’m not either.