It was approximately 3 a.m., and I was staring groggily at a blood bath of an oil painting. The paint caked on my hands and apron (and somehow on my nose) was probably more impressive than the splotchy canvas that swirled hypnotically under the fluorescent lights. Utterly spent, I didn’t even bother with more than a quick rinse of my brushes before dashing out of the bleak Fine Arts Building into the frigid January darkness.
This, my friends, is the not so allegorical tale of a certain college junior (i.e. myself) who hit rock-bottom. And I don’t think I’m alone.
When I entered college as a baby, doe-eyed freshman I believed that I could do anything. What’s more, there was this societal expectation that whatever major I declared, whatever goal I set out to achieve, was the end all, be all. That it was the thing I would do for the rest of my life. It was my defining trait. And if I changed my mind, if I failed to see my dreams come to fruition, no one would have the appropriate vocabulary to deal with it – just a sympathetic pat on the shoulder or an apology or a not-so-veiled look of disapproval. But why? Why should I be ashamed to fail?
Maybe it’s because of the American dream, maybe because of this heightened anxiety over keeping up appearance—most likely it just comes from being human. As far as I can tell, giving up is sometimes far more noble, far more practical and far healthier than continuously running into a brick wall. I finally gave up on my dream of becoming an art teacher after three years of trying to untangle myself from a fight between shame and self-preservation. The shame of having to admit that I pursued a path that didn’t lead to the expected result of success, of having to constantly inform people of this life change, of the wasted hours and dollars—that all felt about the same as confessing to a serious crime. But staying in that major was like trying to stay afloat on a piece of cardboard in the middle of an angry ocean.
Every day I hated getting out of bed. I hated going to class. And, to be thoroughly, utterly, absolutely honest, I began hating myself, all because I had tied my self-worth to a degree. I had believed the lie that success in college, in my career path, in every aspect of my life, was what defined me.
Now, this was hardly the first time I had failed at something, but it was the first time I had majorly failed as an adult. And I didn’t really know how to proceed. How I got from point A of dropping my major to point B of picking a new one is blurry at best, really I am not even sure how well I’ll do with the degree I have chosen. How I healed from this fall is a little more clear.
When I was so entangled in this area of myself, it seemed like art was the only thing I ever had any potential for and that if I couldn’t even meet the expectations of these college professors, then my one and only skill was a bust. I was useless. And I didn’t even realize how that negative self-talk was not only messing with my mental health, but it was totally messing with my physical state, academic achievement and even my relationships. When I finally gave up, I was able to look back across my life and pick up old interests, as well as new ones. This has begun a domino effect of overall improvement in all other categories of my life. Like with most things, healing takes time, but I can already see how this failure, although it hurt me, has grown me. I hope that, in the very least, I’ve become much more compassionate for people who don’t match the general standard of success. I also firmly believe that the path that this failure has set me on is far better than the path that easily earned success would have created. And it’s certainly better than continuing to walk down the dark path of dead talent.
Look, I am not saying that you should always give up when things get tough, but I am saying it’s important that we as college students, we as people, understand the difference between hard work and damaging determination. It’s okay to change, to take a step back, and to fail—it is an opportunity, no matter how painful, for something better.