As many have become aware over the past few weeks, it is graduation season. Commencement speech after commencement speech have appeared in articles and newsfeeds and have been short linked on all sorts of social media. But I have never found much solace or inspiration from these speeches. Many sound repetitive, filled with the same sorts of hackneyed phrases and messages. Very few are even memorable, save for the ones delivered by the very celebrated. I barely even remember the one that was given at my own graduation, being far too occupied by the stifling heat and self-inflicted high-heeled discomfort.
Though the entire blame cannot be placed on the speaker or the occasion itself. How many graduating seniors look back and think about the knowledge and wisdom imparted to them on graduation day? More likely, alumni-to-be are more focused on texting their parents about where to stand to get a good picture of their walk, already jaded by the numerous ceremonies the week of graduation puts them through. Some might be excited by visions of what their adult life is going to look like, how much of a difference they’re going to make. Others are still in a state of disbelief that it’s over, or fear that they still don’t have things figured out.
The whole occasion is no conducive to receiving advice, no matter how well phrased or well intentioned. In some senses we are simply too young and too inexperienced to appreciate the gravity of the wisdom that is being passed down. In others, the accomplished speakers are too removed from the very specific experience of newfound adulthood in today’s society to give concrete enough advice to make a difference.
Perhaps these words coming from me hold no authority. I was not someone who ‘made the most’ of their college years whether making the most of it meant partying a lot, or stacking up professional experiences on your resume, or majoring in something that would actually get a job. I majored in Comparative Literature, one of three students to in my year. I halted any extra curricular activities my junior year of college. I spent my summers waiting tables and binging Netflix. I graduated from a good university wondering what I had done for four years and asking myself whether or not I had done college right.
Those are no longer the questions that plague me one year out. I have long put them past me as things I cannot change and would do better not to regret. Instead, one year of being in the big, scary, ‘real’ world have given me a whole new set of concerns and questions.
How do I deal with a future rife with uncertainty, uncertainty that instills in me such fear as to make me second guess every decision I make from choosing a career to what I have for lunch?
It is not such an unusual question for a young person to ask themselves, thought it demands a very personal answer. And though I might not have made money, or held a job in the past year, or did anything outwardly productive to society to give me any sort of authority to give advice, I did come a little bit closer to my answer.
My answer lies in the fact that I don’t think I failed enough as a child. I think childhood was too easy for me.
It’s not that I was spoiled, and got whatever I want (though I was a bit of a daddy’s girl), or that I didn’t challenge myself, but more that I never wanted something enough for the failure of obtaining it to matter. In fact, I can only remember two times in my short 23-year old life where I failed enough, hard enough for it to matter.
The first time was in sixth grade at dance tryouts. As the youngest of three sisters, all who danced, I thought I was a shoe-in for getting in to what was perceived as the ‘cool hip-hop’ dance, despite the fact that I was in sixth grade and at the very bottom of the dance totem pole. I picked up the choreography well, I even knew the choreographer somewhat. I had it. I was so sure. Sure enough and eager enough that on the day that audition results were posted, I arrived at 7:30 in the morning, 45 minutes before classes started to see and celebrate my success. But my name was not on there. Of the list of 15 or so names, “Emily Lin” was not one of them.
I remember standing in that hallway, between the locker rooms and the dance studios, staring blankly at the bulletin board first in disbelief, then in disappointment, then in shame. I remember reading and re-reading the list before the reality dawned on me and brought tears to my eyes. I don’t know what I did for 45 minutes after that before school actually started. I don’t remember if I had told anybody about it, but I remember that that was the day I discovered I was not a great dancer.
That experience in sixth grade would go on to inform what I did with dance all through middle school, high school, and even college. I was forever the decent dancer. One of the only two seniors in the junior varsity dance team because I was good, but not good enough. And the dancer that was in the front for performances, but always on the side, not the center. That day, in sixth grad is when I learned not to want dance too hard, else risk failure and welcoming those feelings of disappointment and shame again.
The second was in college. My freshman year was probably like many other peoples’ freshman years at a prestigious university. Used to being a big fish, used to being the smartest and most capable in the room, I vastly underestimated the college scene. That was made abundantly clear when, on the same day, two papers were returned to me bearing C marks. I am Asian. I had never gotten a C in my life.
Unlike with the first instance, I remember quite clearly what happened after the fact. I cried on some steps in a back alley on campus. I cried, and I thought myself a failure, and I seriously considered transferring schools. This is not a story people are unfamiliar with.
What I did next was go to the bookstore and buy a bunch of university merchandise which, in my mind, solidified my commitment to the university because, how embarrassing would it have to be to explain why I had so many t-shirts, shorts, and a blanket from a school I didn’t graduate from.
It was a wake up call for me. It told me that if I would have to try harder and take things more seriously than I did in high school if I was to succeed. But the thing is, I didn’t want to succeed for myself. Not that I didn’t want to do well in school, only that the thought of not doing well in school was never an option. Doing well in school merely represented the baseline of what was asked of me, not something that I wanted to do for myself.
So I did well in school. I graduated with honors and an award and a fancy diploma larger than the average size and written entirely in latin. I graduated and then the world asked me what I wanted out of life. For the past year, I have had no answer. Or perhaps, I had an answer but didn’t want to let myself want it enough.
Because wanting something is hard. Wanting something introduces the possibility that you won’t get it. And the more you want it, the more devastating it will be when/if it doesn’t happen. But wanting something, wanting something for yourself is a certainty that you can hold on to in the face of uncertain future.
Unlucky for me, I had so internalized the failure of sixth grade that I have kept the question of what I wanted at bay out of fear of failure. So I say I haven’t failed enough, not as a child, not as a young adult, and not as whatever it is you want to call me now at 23. I say I haven’t failed enough because I am scared, practically paralyzed by fear of uncertainty and of failure to actually pursue what it is that I know I want. I say I haven’t failed enough because it took me a full year of feeling like a failure to finally accept wanting something and all the possibilities it brings with it.
More lenient interpretations of my life post-grad will say that I am being too harsh on myself, that the first year out of college and in ‘adulthood’ is almost always a shit show of uncertainty and fear and learning how to “adult” for the first time. It would optimistically tell me that I still learned and grew a lot not only in this time but also throughout the journey besides those two times; it would tell me that I am now not just older but also wiser, etc etc.
I concede that, yes, the first year out of college does have a tendency of being a shit show. If anything that is one of the most important things to keep in mind as eager wide-eyed graduates step off campuses this summer. And that, yes, I have learned and grown despite not contributing anything. However, I still maintain that more failure earlier on in my life would have given me a better constitution for dealing with life and its demands. I want to think that it would have given me better self-assurance to tackle these questions without right answers.
I cannot speak for anyone but myself when I say that the thing that I would have wanted to hear, one year ago on my graduation day is not that I should be fearless, or that I should go ‘set the world on fire,’ persevere through struggle, or about how fortunate I was to have completed my studies. Rather it is this:
Want something, invite failure, and through doing so, make progress.