Tunnel Vision: Let’s Talk About Failure.

So what happens when you’re in a tunnel and you cannot see the light at the end of it? You acquire some tunnel vision.

Okay that’s quite a lame joke, but a girl’s gotta try. There’s something about a dark closed up space that makes you feel extremely hopeless and powerless, like you’ve hit rock bottom and the world is slowly bidding you adieu. But at the same time, it makes you feel like it couldn’t get any worse that this and so it gives you something to hope for. Hopeful that when you find your way out, you will experience an awakening, a breath of fresh air and the freedom to just be. At that point, all your senses are stimulated and what matters the most is that you get out of the tunnel. Not so much what you will find when you get out of the tunnel.

Freedom, KawiSnippets
Photo taken by Michael Ngigi.

Of late, I have been having so many conversations around failure. It’s not that I am always the instigator of the said conversation. Sometimes someone would bring it up in conversation, other times I would overhear a conversation and take note, the other Sunday, it was a part of the sermon in church, then I dreamt about it sometime, and that was it for me. I am like, let’s talk about failure. It’s a fear for many, isn’t it? At least for the better part of my adulthood it has been. It has been the fear to fail not only myself, but mostly my society – my parents, my siblings, my teachers, my church, my employers and my friends.

When I think of moment I first became aware of failure, I’d trace it back to my upper primary. My understanding of failure then was related to exams and performance mostly. In my lower primary, I knew that it was bad to fail in exams because your class position will be compromised and you’ll have that difficult conversation with your parents, then your uncles and aunties during holidays. It was always the first question when they visited, “so Kawi, what position were you?”

Then I went to boarding school for a period and things changed up a little, such that when you failed in your exams you would get a proper beating. This was determined by the target the teacher had set for the particular subject. For instance, if the target for math was 80% and you got 78% you would get 2 thrashes. That wasn’t too bad, because it was almost like a mass punishment and misery loves company. So we would be beaten, then we would discuss and console each other and we would be over it before we knew it, kids.

I was then transferred to a different school for my upper primary, and the system was completely different. At least there was no beating, thank God. But when we got to class 8, performance became a publicly competitive affair and far more worse for me than the beating or the being questioned. They started arranging students according to their performance (or class positions). The classes were North, Central and South. So the students that were position 1-40 would be in 8N, 41- 80 would be in 8C, and 81 – last student would be in 8S. Being an average student myself, I would always fall between 8N and 8C. So one time I would be position 30 something or 40, and other times I would be position 41. I hated it so much, because every time I tipped the scale to 41, I would be required to move my belongings i.e. desk and chair, to 8C. Of course I did everything I could to stay in the top class, but I guess there just seemed to be kids who were brighter than me and more consistent with their performance. There was one girl in particular who we kept changing up places with and we became good friends then based on the fact that we understood this “neither here, nor there” struggle. It was quite the experience.

I have never really thought about it before or talked about it until now when I am writing about it. But what this did to me is that it made me cringe every time we were having exams. And instead of focusing so much on the learning or applying what I’ve learnt, my mind would constantly be juggling thoughts of what would happen if I fail in exams? “Jeez, now all the students will know because I will be relegated to the average class. Or when I am in the average class, I still have to maintain that position 41 to be top in the average class, because how embarrassing is it to be pushed back.” There was no comfortable place for me. I don’t know if they still do that to-date, but I hope they don’t. It was quite disheartening.

Fast forward to University, after being exposed to all these systems and getting to know myself and accepting my “level of intelligence” (it’s sad because you really undermine yourself and what you’re capable of doing). I made up my mind that I will just do my best going forward and not focus so much on how others were performing. I knew that I wasn’t the best there was out there and I knew that I was an average performer, and perhaps that’s not such a good thing to know. But it worked for me. And so every semester I would read and revise for my exams the best way I knew to and when I sat in the exam room, I would let the knowledge I had acquired just flow from my mind to my paper. I got many A’s, and of course B’s and a few C’s to boot.

But surprisingly, this strategy got me a 1st class honors in the end. I say surprisingly because never in my wildest dreams did I think I would get a 1st class honors, let alone making it to the Dean’s list. I thought my friends would, but not me. We joked about it a whole lot (we still do when someone finds out). I still don’t take it so seriously to-date even if it’s on my CV. Even when my name was called out from the podium during graduation, I thought they would realize they have made a mistake then relegate me to 2nd class upper. I had made all those calculations in my mind and I was so ready. I had developed tough skin after primary school when it came to handling class positions anyway. The thing is, I didn’t get all straight A’s – maybe in some semesters (hides), and when I did, I was happy but didn’t quite take notice of it because I didn’t see myself that way. I had assumed in order to be a top student; you have to be a straight A’s student, all the damn time, if possible from Nursery school. But in Campus, it all added up, the strong A’s, the weak A’s, the B’s and the C’s – all my efforts added up. It was quite heartening.

Now that we’re done with school, our view of failure turns out to be a whole different ball game. We thought exams were tough and our class positions being published for the whole school to see was unsettling. Then bam! The real challenges check in, we start working or doing business, we get into relationship and/or get married, we start families, we grow our friendships, and we acquire properties.

Your life is basically always under a microscope. You start out, and midway through it, one small blunder can get you rolling back right where you started from or even worse. Just when you thought you’ve brokered such a great deal, you realize that you were conned off your life savings. Just when you feel your relationship is at its peak, something creeps up and it comes tumbling down. Just when you think work got better – say you’ve been promoted, you got a raise, you got accolades, their expectations of what you can deliver skyrockets or the business shuts down. Technically, as you adult, the number of things you had control over gradually reduces and many at times you’re left at the mercy of your environment – the people, the things, the climate. It’s not about doing exams any more, it’s about doing life.

And that’s how my view of failure has drastically changed over time. This has helped me not to fear failure per se, but rather be confident enough to face it head on. When you feel like you have failed in a certain fragment of your life, whether work, marriage, school, friendships, name it, sometimes by your own doing and other times by things out of your control; it’s not the end of the road. You’ve just gotten to the bit of the road where there’s a tunnel, and if you keep moving – as dark as it may be, as tough as it may be, as scary as it may be, as closed up it may be, if you keep moving, you will pass through it and it will open you up to more opportunities that lie ahead. Opportunities that will get you back to stability.

Failing means that you keep trying and trying and trying until it happens. Best yet, until you get to that point where your heart is at peace because you have been servicing it and directing all your efforts towards what it yearns for.

Failing is not about giving up or dead ends. In real life, it means that you keep sitting for those exams even when you don’t perform too well, it means that you keep sending those CVs even when you get no response from anyone; it means you keep investing even when it doesn’t seem to bear fruit just yet; it means that you keep saving even when your goal seems unattainable; it means you keep going for those interviews even when you get rejection letters from others; it means you keep giving people a chance even when they keep disappointing you; it means that you keep believing even when all hope seems lost and lastly, it means that you keep praying even when no one seems to hear you prayer.

Here’s to a great week ahead Snippers. Keep trying, keep trying, keep trying, you never know, this next push could be the last push you need to realize that dream you have.

Signing Off ~~~ *Kawi*