Get Out of Your Own Way: Embracing the Chaos of Academic Success
Updated: Mar 11
My pathology exam, one-hundred and forty questions long, with an emphasis on whole-semester integration, was three days away. Nonetheless, I sat motionless on my grey block-like chaise lounge, covered in a blanket, mysteriously unable to study. I occupied myself in a multitude of ways. Social media scrolling, covid statistic checking, and self deprecating internal dialogues were punctuated by brief and fruitless glances at my notes. I had plans to re-read and memorize the entire syllabus of the course during this time. My mind, it seemed, had simply had enough. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but shame myself for this sudden lack of motivation.
This was just the latest iteration of a common experience of mine. To the outsider, I’m a successful animal biology student who maintains hands-on involvement in his field. To myself, I’m an average young adult: somebody primarily motivated by fear who consistently does not meet his potential. I’m a prime example of an often ignored reality: success is messy, and people who appear to 'have it together' struggle just like everybody else. Such a grim statement may make you want to reach for a Smirnoff ice at nine in the morning, but I’m not here to discourage. On the contrary, I hope that my openness about the messiness of success can bring you towards greater contentment and self-respect.
I reloaded the site documenting my fall 2020 grades for the seventh time that week. Four grades had been uploaded, including one I dreaded: Pathology 3610. My grade, it turned out, was about ten percent higher than I had predicted. Was my guilt and self deprecation on the chaise-lounge for naught? Why did I doubt my abilities, despite obviously being well prepared?
My suffering, it turns out, was not without purpose. It drove me to look, to listen, and to learn from others who have suffered in the same way. During my unproductive hibernation prior to the exam, I took in the pragmatic words of world champion sharp shooter Christina Bengtsson in her TED talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xF80HzqvAoA). When she shot the perfect bullseye that made her the best in the world, Ms. Bengtsson focused not on the target, but instead on a beautiful fall leaf in the distance. She let her training and instinct do the work. I had been feverishly studying pathology material for four months prior to my exam, but instead of resting easy, I placed no faith in what I had already learned. I treated myself like a forgetful infant, but conversely expected myself to re-learn an entire science course in three days.
The exam began. Lockdown browser. Webcam on. Question fifteen. I know this. I can’t think of it. I brought my eyes away from the question and focused on the black iron pipe supporting the shelf above my desk. My heart rate slowed. The answer came to me. Much like Ms. Bengtsson, I brought my focus to the present and stopped being my own worst enemy during those eight seconds.
The rest of the exam was far from perfect or easy, and I wasn’t sure of the result immediately afterwards. Now, the semester having ended with grades in, it is obvious that Ms. Bengtsson’s technique uncovered a capacity to recall information that I didn’t know I had. My advice to you, dear reader? Study, train, or labour as hard as you can, but once the work has been done, give credit to your efforts and get out of your own way.