How failing a class kickstarted my life

Du Nguyen
Du Nguyen
Dec 3, 2014 · 7 min read

I have always been good in school. Or so I thought until the moment I stared my professor in the eyes and he told me that he would be failing me. The result: prolonging my bachelors with another semester and feeling like a failure. But in retrospect: it might just have been the turning point of my life.

I grew up in an Asian household and my parents were strict on education following the classical Asian stereotype. I distinctly remember being told at least once a month about how I would become a doctor or a lawyer when I grew up. I had other plans though — I was to be a pilot and fly all over the world! Or an astronaut! Or even a businessman!

Even though my dreams were a disconnect compared to the expectations of my parents I still had an ability to effortlessly learn in school which meant that the high grades were easily achieved. High grades also meant that I could become whatever I wished to become but by then I was even less certain about what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. All I knew was that I did not want to become either a doctor or a lawyer as my parents wished.

The effortless learning and the high expectations led me to believe that wealth, knowledge and fame would come soon. I had never been so confident and sure of myself when at high school and that only made the descent steeper. After high school I decided that computer science was to be my way and joined the best engineering school in Denmark. Only a week in I felt out of my depth. The curriculum was much harder than I anticipated and all of my earlier methods of studying failed. I had easily been accepted due to my outstanding grades from high school but now I felt like an impostor who had no place there. It did not help either that I fell behind in maths, physics and chemistry which was three of my best subjects in high school. The reality was that I had built up an image of myself as being destined for greatness but at college that image shattered and now I seemed destined for mediocrity.

I drifted along for two and a half years and passed my courses with average grades and was accepting my mediocrity. The weight of expectations, from my own, my parent’s and the society meant that I was paralyzed with impostor syndrome and a fear of failure. Until I failed a class for the first time ever.

The class was one of the hardest classes on algorithms at the university and As a bachelor student I was in the minority among the Masters and PhD students there. During the semester it became painfully clear that I could not cut it but I still tried in hopes that I would just about scrape along the class. And then it happened. At the oral exam I stumbled my way through the subject of amortization and approximation algorithms before failing the class. Hardly even surprised at the result, I went home and began preparing for my other exams and the defense of my bachelor project. I had already expected to fail.

A summer break was very much needed to recover from the grueling semester. I went interrailing through Europe with my two best friends. What I had planned to be the celebration of my bachelors had now become a retreat and a time for me to redefine myself. Away from usual confines I realized that I had let my standards, ambitions and dreams slide. Settled into the rhythms of courses, exams and semesters I had forgotten about how there is an entire world out there. Going on InterRail opened my eyes and made me realize that the world moves on — with or without you — and I did not plan on being left behind.

Coming back I set upon redefining myself with my new-found determination. I realized that my mediocre results was due to the hefty expectations set by my parents, society — or how I thought society looked at me — and myself. The expectations resulted in a fear of failure and action paralysis. I learned to accept who I was and accept that it was alright for me to want something for myself. I accepted that I would never live up to the expectations that used to rule my life and that I wouldn't.

I began to take many different courses and doing what I thought was interesting. I experimented with machine learning, data science, computer games, mobile apps, cognitive science and ended up writing my thesis in affective gaming. Freed from having to conform to the expectations of others my grades started to improve as I found a joy in studying. It was because I finally started to take the reins of my own life. Because I finally did what I felt was right. Because I had found out who I was.

I am now a software engineer. I finished college with good grades and feel good and optimistic about my future. I am no longer paralyzed by choices, instead I seek opportunities. I am acting instead of reacting in my life and it started with failing a class.


The lessons I learned

Looking back I have identified several changes that I made to change my life and conquer the uncertainty, insecurity and lack of motivation. Here are some of the most important learnings:

Stop caring what others think or do: After failing my class I found out that nobody really cared that I failed. My parents did not care, my friends were supportive of me, my professors understood. I found out that the only shame I felt was self-inflicted and that I should no let everybody else determine how I felt.

The takeaway: Do not think much of others when you do things. Most often the shame, fear or negative feelings are the ones you generate for yourself.

Focus on yourself: Discovering that nobody cares about you also means that you are the only one to take care of yourself. So go read a book, learn a new skill, work out. Nobody is going to do this for you, but you. After failing the class I doubled down on learning, started working out and worked on improving myself, mentally and physically. I moved the focus of my thoughts from what others thought of me to what I could do about myself and for myself.

The takeaway: Nobody is going to improve your life for you. Take ownership of yourself and do things that benefit you. So, what are you waiting for?

Relax and enjoy the little things: What I also learned was that instead of sweating the big stuff, enjoy the small joys instead. I learned on my travels to enjoy the little things about life. Instead of thinking of my future and how I had to fulfill the destiny others had planned for me I would focus on the small things and the immediate future. Enjoying the little things made me happy instead of endlessly worrying about the future.

The takeaway: Take time to enjoy the little things, the things that are around you and the things that are happening right now. These are the things that matter.

Learn to accept yourself: I carried a lot of baggage from my childhood where I put impossible standards upon myself spurred on by the expectation of everybody else. And every time I failed, it hurt as I was not failing myself but everybody else. Focusing on myself really taught me that I could not be happy until I accepted myself and all of my flaws. Once I had accepted that I could not live up to the standards of others, I could work on living up to my own standards. And that made a world of difference.

The takeaway: Learn to accept yourself and all of your strengths, flaws, virtues and vices. You can become what you think of yourself. Let your happiness depend on others and you will never be happy; let your happiness depend on yourself and you have the potential to always be happy. Accept yourself and manage your expectations.

These four lessons was definitely something that improved my life and was instigated by failing that one class. Hopefully you won’t have to fail classes yourself to learn this and I hope that you can take something away from my tale.


Like it? Please share and recommend it if you enjoyed reading it. Connect with me on twitter: @dunguyen90 with any comments, thoughts and suggestions.

Thanks to Gandalf Saxe

    Du Nguyen

    Written by

    Du Nguyen

    Software developer who occasionally blogs, reads books and travel around places.

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