“Learning to Fail” Story 1: Perseverance

I’ll begin this multi-part journey with a simple story about rejection and perseverance.


As I said in the introductory piece to this series, I was a perfectionist and overachiever who beat herself up over even the smallest failures, like a single red X amidst my hundred green check marks. Obviously, this mindset is never good if one wants to improve, but I wasn’t interesting in improving. I just wanted everything to be perfect.

Of course, life has a way of taking your biggest fears and shoving them down your throat, and that’s exactly what it did to me.

One of the biggest experiences that changed this destructive mindset of mine was my experience in research, participating in the Sanofi Biogenius Canada Competition in grade 12.

This was a competition in which high school students designed and executed real world research projects with mentors from universities and hospitals. I had a project, but without a mentor I couldn’t enter the competition. So, I had to suck in my gut, stand tall, and email hundreds of professors begging to let me into their lab.

After a few days of constant researching, emailing, and telephoning, my email sent folder looked like this. LITERALLY THIS WASN’T EVEN ALL OF IT:

aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhadasdasalsjdlkasjd

Over the course of a month, I had sent hundreds and hundreds of emails and painfully waited for the responses to pour in.

After 1 week: nothing.
The second week: nothing.
The third week, some emails trickled in. Excited and filled with hope (chanting the mantra “I definitely got it, they totally loved my proposal, that was so easy), I clicked on them.All of these emails were filled with the same disheartening responses:

“Unfortunately, my lab isn’t taking any undergrads at this time.”
“Unfortunately, this isn’t my area of expertise.”
“Unfortunately, we do not have the materials you need.”

The weeks passed. Literally every single email I received had the same harsh rejection.

This went on for a while. The moment an email would start with the short preview “Unfort–” I would immediately put my phone down and re-evaluate whether I wanted to do this at all. There was even one moment where a professor had completely destroyed my proposal. This was his response to my proposal:

“Let me first say that the last thing I would want to do is to discourage someone interested in science…but there are several issues with your proposal.  First, although cancer is a really important issue, and I would never dismiss its importance and even though I am not a cancer specialist, I am pretty sure that the statement that “the incidences of cancers have been rising steadily in North America” is false.  …More important is the implied hypothesis of your proposal…”

He then proceeded to comment on every sentence of my proposal in one massive paragraph, then wrote at the end:

“As much as I hate to discourage people interested in doing research, and I have had one high school student do research in my lab, there are several reasons why I will have to decline this request.”

Well then. I was completely discouraged after this.

But no! Out of all the emails I sent, there was NO WAY I would let one silly email destroy my goals. This was a respectable competition with thousands of dollars in prizes, and I wasn’t about to let a few rejections get in the way of that. In fact, I forced myself to take the step I hated the most, the step I didn’t want to do at all, the step that I was sure would crush my flimsy pride:

I emailed him a thank you letter and accepted the criticism.

Of course, it crushed my soul. I wrote that email feeling worse than I did before, but even so, I began to feel my shattered ego start piecing itself together again.

It was okay. People get rejections all the time, and yet they’ve been able to pick themselves up and move on. Why couldn’t I?

Then a few days and some more emails later, a sliver of hope, peeking out from behind the mass of rejections. An email titled with words that made my heart beat a little faster:

“Interested in your proposal.”

This was someone who had complimented my advances, expressed interest in my research proposal, and asked to set up an interview.

And so I learned an incredibly important lesson about perseverance: if it had not been for those 999 failures, I would never have gotten that single position at the St. Michael’s lab.

Stay tuned for part 3: HONESTY.

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“Learning to Fail”: How An Odd Paradox Can Help You Succeed

Failure is a hard concept to swallow.

Back in early high school, I used to be a high 90s student. I was at the top of the class, was close friends with my teachers, made honour roll every year, and lived the good life. I was that kid that went, “Oh, another 100? Meh, whatever,” and tossed it on the ever-growing pile of high marks. People looked to me for help with schoolwork, and I loved giving it. Needless to say, when you’re in that position, you feel like you can conquer anything.

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I FEEL INVINCIBLE!

When a person in a situation like mine finally hits a roadblock, it’s tough. Your ego takes a couple of hits, your self-esteem turns down a few notches, your future looks a little dimmer and it’s really, really, really tough to recover.

That feeling of failure…is a hard one to describe. Your stomach is churning, your eyes get blurry, your chest tightens a bit, and you begin an endless mantra of “I could have done better, I could have gotten a 90, if only I hadn’t slept so late, if only I wasn’t so stupid, if only…!

What’s sad to me is that people think this is a normal attitude towards failure. “Of course it’s natural!” one person might argue. “With an attitude like that, you’ll be able to improve your weaknesses.”

“How else will you be motivated to study?” another person might say. “If you’re not driven to correct your failures, you’ll never study.”

All legitimate arguments, but there’s a bit of a problem: endurance.

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These attitudes, these opinions, this widespread idea that you’re just not good enough or that you’re lazy or unintelligent…these things prevent you from being able to overcome the next challenge. These thoughts cloud your vision so your eyes are set not on a potential solution to your problem, but instead on attacking yourself. How can someone with this mindset survive the obstacles that will inevitably happen in university?

When one approaches failure with fear in their chest, they can be likened to a branch being shaken by strong winds. With every storm it endures, the branch bends and cracks, until it eventually breaks off. This is the branch’s breaking point.

When one approaches failure with courage in their heart, they can be likened to a worker’s hands being scratched by heavy blocks. With every block the worker lifts, the hands become wounded and then are given time to heal, until the hand forms callouses. This is endurance.

When you learn how to fail, you’re able to conquer bigger, tougher, scarier obstacles …and succeed. You’re able to appreciate yourself and your talents and can gauge your weaknesses without the cloud of self-doubt.

It took a long time for me to learn how to fail properly. Countless experiences with this scary “F-word” forced me to come to terms with it. I’ll be sharing these stories with you in order to help you understand the importance of learning how to fail.

Each story will have a motif, a trait that will help you build your tolerance to failure.

The first part will touch on PERSEVERANCE. Stay tuned!

 

Daily De-Stresser Review Series: Over the Garden Wall

Click. Click. Click. Yawn.

You’re flipping through Netflix, but you’ve seen every show about three times. There’s nothing good on TV, and Youtube’s trending videos look boring. You’ve finished all your homework, and your little brother is hogging the Xbox.

…What to do now?

When you’re all out of content to watch, life can get a little stale. As someone who thrives off of a good plot, I’ve always got a couple of shows waiting under my sleeve. Not only are they entertaining, but they can be great stress relievers and can easily add an extra burst of joy between those assignments you have due tomorrow.

The purpose of these review series is to introduce to those of you who’ve got nothing to watch some interesting shows. Not only that, but they’re the perfect excuse for me to re-watch some of the series I loved and revisit old memories.

Today’s Review Series is a series close to my heart: Over the Garden Wall.

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Don’t they just look adorable?

Creator: Patrick McHale
Network: Cartoon Network
Genre(s): Comedy, Horror, Adventure, Dark Fantasy.
Episodes: 10.
Episode Length: 11 minutes.
Blogger Rating: 9.5/10

Over the Garden Wall is an enchanting miniseries by Patrick McHale about two half-brothers who get lost in a strange forest called “The Unknown”. In trying to find their way home, the brothers encounter many different people, towns, and obstacles. One such obstacle is the legendary “Beast” who feeds on the souls of children who have lost their way, both physically and emotionally. It’s basically like a twisted fairy tale.

The half-brothers Wirt and Greg are incredibly likeable but complete opposites, almost being perfect foils of each other. Wirt — a high school student, clarinet player, and poet — has an awkward, sarcastic, cynical personality that can annoy his companions and get him into trouble sometimes. Greg, on the other hand, is a bubbly elementary student who believes that anything is possible. Joining them on their adventures is a rude, sarcastic, cynical talking bird named Beatrice, who clashes intensely with Wirt’s similar personality. Needless to say, the group makes a difficult bunch, but they manage somehow.

“It’s basically like a twisted fairy tale.”

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Wirt on the left, Gregory (Greg) on the right, and Beatrice on Greg’s hat.

Without giving too much away, the villain — appropriately called “The Beast” — has been named one of Cartoon Network’s darkest villains. With his deep, melancholic tune and ability to strike fear in any who approach him, this label may not be far off from the truth; he really is terrifying, especially in his rutheless pursuit to hunt down Wirt and Greg. His presence changes the cartoon from a light-hearted old film to a deep, dark horror film.

Perhaps the most enchanting thing about this miniseries is the beautiful, breathtaking artwork by the show’s art director, Nick Cross. While all of his work is done online, the majority of it is still hand drawn (using a drawing tablet). The theme? Strong contrast between light and dark. It really brings out the whole “dark but hopeful” motif that the show has going on, and makes you feel like you wandered into a children’s novel. Hansel and Gretel, here we come!

“The Beast has been named one of Cartoon Network’s darkest villains.”

The artwork is a stark contrast from the actual character animation, which is simple and colourful. Even so, the characters seem to blend in with their surroundings, thanks to the appropriate colour choices. Not only that, but the lovely musical sing-alongs and breathtaking OST accompanying the pictures will have you transported right into the world with them.

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Doesn’t it look like you’ve walked straight into a fairy tale?

This really isn’t a show meant for younger kids, with its complicated mix of comedy, sarcasm, and horror that only an adult would understand. There are a lot of subtle jokes catered to the older audience, who would be able to understand Wirt’s embarrassing plight of a high school student. It’s also hilarious to see Wirt question the so-called fairy tale environment he’s been thrust into; he sees it as less of an adventure and more of a hell he’d like to leave ASAP. One of my favourite exchanges goes as follows:

Wirt and Greg are walking through the unknown in the hopes of finding someone for directions. After their failed attempt at trying to ask a woodsman for help, they are confronted by Beatrice, the talking bird:

B: “Maybe I can help you! I mean…you guys are lost, right?”
W: “(Gasp!) (*slaps his face*) What in the world is going on?”
G: “Well, you’re slapping yourself, and I’m answering your question, and–”
W: “N-no, Greg, a-a bird’s brain isn’t big enough for cognizant speech, and–
B: “Hey, what was that?”
W: “I-I mean, I’m just saying, you’re, you’re weird. Like, not normal. I-I mean–oh my gosh, stop talking to it, Wirt.”
B: “It?”

See? Much awkwardness, so cynicism, such wow.

A quick Google search on Over the Garden Wall gives these promising review titles: “Easiest 10 I’ve Given in a Long Time”, “Cartoon Network’s Triumphant Return“, “A new golden age of TV animation?”, “A Perfect show that knew exactly how long it needed to be”, “A Cartoon Network gem, one of their best in a long time”, “A beautiful and harrowing Fairytale” (thanks, IMBd).

Clearly, the show must have done something right.

Out of all of the series I’ve watched, this has definitely been the easiest: with only 10 episodes at about 11 minutes each, it takes almost 2 hours to watch the whole thing in one sitting, something I’ve done with my friends multiple times. As a result, I’ve watched this series about 7 or 8 times, and I’ve never gotten tired of it.

“A beautiful and harrowing Fairytale.”

What’s so heartwarming about this story is that it’s about how an average Joe, your typical shy, nerdy high school student, a self-identified “loser”, can become the world’s bravest hero in his own awkward, sarcastic way.

So, why the 9.5/10?

There is nothing I can think of that this series did wrong. No plot holes, no character mishaps, no animation mishaps, nothing of the sort. Beautiful animation, deep plot, great metaphors, strong voice actors, and a great experience overall that had me, someone who almost never cries, dabbing my eyes at the end of the film.

My only complaint? Episode 8.

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Cute kids cartoon, or creepy clownish nightmare?

Appropriately titled “Babes in the Wood“, the entire episode focused on little Greg’s dreams, in which he tries to take Wirt’s place and find a way to bring the brothers back home by getting advice via dream world. When I asked the art director through his Tumblr page what happened with this episode, he said they were trying to make it “like an 80s cartoon”.

I get it. I really do. That doesn’t stop me from being incredily creeped out.

I felt uncomfortable watching that episode because it was just…so…weird. It’s supposed to be cute, but the dismembered baby heads did little to soothe my worries.That’s the only reason I don’t give it a perfect rating (although believe me, I was very close). Either way, this episode saved itself: the beginning was incredibly sad, and the end packed a massive shocker that left all viewers reeling back and clicking furiously on the “next episode” button.

On a final note, here’s something to look for when you’re watching. Consider it a tip:

The whole show is a metaphor.

The twisted woods? The Beast? The train? The steadily changing weather? All part of a massive metaphor, all forming one of those legendary “big ideas” that will blow your mind when you figure it out. If you’re an English student, you’re going to have a lot of fun analyzing the heck out of this one.

If you’re still not convinced, here’s a 2 minute sample clip to reel you in:

 So, what are you waiting for? Gather your friends, curl up by the fireplace, make some popcorn, and binge-watch this charming, enchanting, dark series in one night. Oh, and don’t forget those tissues: you’ll be bawling like a baby by the end of the night, I promise you.

Tea Time is Me Time

University can get pretty stressful.

I found that out barely a few days into the first month. I’d entered school with my survival kit: a laptop for labs, three coloured highlighters for readings, a few good pens, and a bottle of white-out to ensure note-taking perfection. I’d planned out my breaks and laid out what I was going to do in the next month using the handy-dandy syllabus.  I thought I was prepared. But suddenly, the two quizzes and one assignment I thought would be really manageable became three lab reports, five quizzes, math problems, chemistry problems, a sociology test, two midterms, and the CRA. I thought I’d never see light again.

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In the world of the work clock, when there seems to be time for nothing, it’s hard to find a few hours to ourselves. When things get hectic and the mental stress becomes overwhelming, I run to my safe refuge, the one thing that can calm my nerves:

Tea.

To be particular, chai. And not just any chai, but a nice, creamy, hot cup of what Pakistanis affectionately call “dhood pati” (literally translating to “milk tea bag”) which is literally just a tea bag boiled in milk. I have a cup every evening: no sugar, tons of milk. It’s the most calming sensation on the planet. All headaches are gone. There are flowers and rainbows. Chemistry suddenly makes sense. As Henry James says in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”

If you’re like me, who logged in literally (not figuratively) a millisecond after my enrollment time and found all of my courses to be full, then your schedules are really long and you probably end class at around 6PM. Because of this, coupled with my 1-2 hour commute, the school days can get really, really long. I also have this weird medical condition where long days cause me to get really bad sinus pressure headaches (something about my sinuses being sensitive to small changes in weather, who knows) which make me feel like I’m drifting through fog.

Long story short: school days can suck sometimes. A hot cup of tea in the middle of the day can do wonders for pain: mental, physical, and emotional.

UTM has some pretty interesting places to get tea. We’ve got that cool Chatime bubble tea place opening up in October (they’re hiring, by the way!). We’ve got old, reliable Timmy’s, which sells great but slightly watery steeped teas. We can’t forget Starbucks, with its vast assortment of fancy teas courtesy of Teavana. There’s also Second Cup, which is the perfect balance between Timmy’s cheap prices and Starbucks’ fancy quality. Personally, I always go for a medium steeped tea with two cream at Timmy’s when the day’s gotten too long. It’s a basic staple drink I can always rely on, like an old friend. Really hits the spot!

I’ve noticed that caffeine consumption (whether tea, coffee, or another caffeinated drink) peaked for a lot of my friends in university. Whether they have fallen into the cliché ritual of grabbing a cup every morning, or whether they just like the aesthetic of strutting around with a $5 Starbucks latte, I’ll never know. Maybe they legitimately need the caffeine to stay awake every morning, to which I would just shake my head with disappointment. Either way, it feels like university comes with it a mass coffee drinking culture that sucks all tired, disoriented students in its abyss. It’s like we only consume caffeine to keep ourselves alive, to borrow energy instead of creating our own.

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But evening tea! With just the subtle hints of caffeine and the creamy undertones of milk, it rejuvenates the mind and soul. And it doesn’t just have to be chai; caffeine-free varieties (or should I say, varieTEAS) like chamomile and rooibos work wonders and help with sleep. A warm glass of milk, with its creamy base and light sugary taste, is another great soul-cleanser. For the coffee drinkers, a light evening java may also be a great choice, provided it’s not too close to bedtime. It’s the hot drink coupled with the mental breather that helps alleviate stress and lets us develop a quite appreciation for life.

Tea time is me time. It’s a time when all worries are out the window and I can let my mind wander. When I can forget about my assignments and focus instead on cultivating my thoughts. I can write in my notebook, or watch a funny show (Dragon Ball Super again, no shame). I can sketch, paint, doodle, and be creative. I can delve into a good book, or skim over the editorials in the newspaper. Heck, I can even stare at a blank wall and just empty my mind, just breathe.

But this isn’t only a discussion about tea. It’s a discussion about something much deeper, something inherent to many students, something intrinsic to university life:

Stress management.

This is something I struggle with, and I know a lot of others do, too. When you’ve got five assignments, three lab reports, and a midterm coming up, it’s easy to forget about focusing on you. I find myself forgetting to eat, nap, and pray when I’m locked up in those math problems or on a roll typing my essay. That’s why I drink tea: to take a break from life. I don’t know how I would complete anything without this mental break in my day. It’s like we’re all swimming, holding our breath under water, and we need to resurface and breathe or we would start drowning.

So the next time you see someone purchase a steeped tea at Tim Horton’s or buy a peach-lemon green tea from Starbucks, give them a thumbs up. Because while we may have different tastes, be in different programs, and come from completely different backgrounds, there are a few things that bond us during times of struggle. Tea is one of them.

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“If you are cold, tea will warm you;
if you are too heated, it will cool you;
If you are depressed, it will cheer you;
If you are excited, it will calm you.”
(William Ewart Gladstone)
(Photo credits to my sister, Faiyza Alam. She drew this herself!)