I’m In School to Learn, Not to Study for an Exam
When I’m a CEO, I’m going to hire people who’ve made lots of mistakes and told me about them, and then told me what they learned from them with cool shit they’ve built to prove it.
Graduation is in 11 days, and of course grades are a hot topic. Every time it’s brought up, I always think about why it took me so long to come to terms of wanting to be a software engineer.
This semester I took two classes that brutally kicked my ass. I took one of the hardest required courses for my computer science major, and one of the hardest courses offered at Wentworth overall. I went into these courses thinking that because I didn’t take any theoretical classes, I wouldn’t succeed in a theoretical computer science course, or an advanced physics course meant to tell me that everything we learned in a high school physics class or an introductory college level physics course is wrong.
Regarding my required CS course, yes programming is my strong suit. Yet this course involved little programming, and was completely abstract. My advanced physics class was part of my required science elective needed to graduate. My fear of failure often made thoughts such as these cross my mind:
- If I fail or drop these courses can I actually succeed in Software Engineering?
- If I don’t do above average will my professors think it’s because I’m a woman, black or both?
- Will my professors or my peers see my failure as a confirmation that underrepresented students cannot succeed in this field?
- Are their doubts valid if there are so little of us even trying?
The retention rate for underrepresented students in computer science is appalling. According to Think Progress women make up less than 20% of computer science majors and blacks and latinos make up less than 15%. I was so afraid of failing and contributing to these dismal statistics.
Despite my fears, I still worked rigorously for both of these classes. Fortunately my professor was dedicated to his students and responds to emails frequently, and I befriended women students in these classes and reached out to them for help. Although I received average grades on my homework assignments, I still received horrible grades on the midterms.
Although I didn’t do as well as I hoped, I’m passing because of the work I put into my assignments and side projects, and because my professors recognized the overall effort I put into the courses. After reflecting on this hurdle, I realized that I didn’t give myself the chance to really succeed. Here’s what I learned:
If your professor or peers think you not doing well is a reflection of every student with a similar identity or background, that reflects on them — not you.
Something I’ve felt as the only girl and the only black student in most of my classes was that if I failed, I failed my entire gender, my entire race, every black woman who ever wanted to go into STEM. I later felt that to a point where I was scared of trying things. It’s as if I was dishonoring Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and every black woman who worked at NASA who changed the world and made it so that I could be doing what I love today in an integrated environment.
Things changed once I saw other women at Wentworth trying things, making mistakes, and learning from them. When I joined clubs like Society of Women Engineers, National Society of Black Engineers, and IEEE, I saw women trying really cool things that scared the crap out of me. I later explored different organizations like NCWIT and She++ where I met women from all over the world who inspired me to try new and even scarier things. I have these women to thank for trying things like coding, soldering, drilling, 3D printing, leadership, the list goes on. I’m now at the point where if I had a bug in my code, or if my board blew up I’d ask “Why?” instead of tucking my problems under a messy bed and hope that nobody would notice. The fact that I, and individual a black woman, excelling at these activities diminished any fear of being attached to racial or gender stereotypes.
Do not burden yourself with the idea that you are representing everyone from your race, gender, orientation, etc. You are your own person who has their own learning experiences. No one should conflate your individual thoughts or experiences to those of an entire people. You don’t have to prove yourself to those who can’t even see you as an individual.
If you go into something with the expectation of failure, you probably won’t do well.
We can be our own worst critic. If you put yourself down before you even start something, you’ve already created a barrier between you and potential success. When you try something new, go in with excitement, and expect that you will learn something. Success is different for everyone, so don’t use your peers’ success as a measure of your own. Go into that new class or learn that new skill, make realistic goals for yourself and use those goals to motivate you through the tough times.
Learn from the experience regardless of the outcome.
I realized that timed exams aren’t the best way to measure how well I learn something, nor are they the best way to define me overall. Instead of constantly putting myself down, I learned ways to curb my test anxiety, and take classes that have more projects than tests, and join clubs that worked on interesting projects. The ideas that were once just eye tickling word candy in my journal actually had the chance to come to fruition. With engineering and coding you spent most of your time trying something ten thousand times just to find one way that works. Whether its project’s for school, or a passion project on the side, the outcomes aren’t always what I hoped for on the first few tries.
If the outcome is not what you had hoped for, try to figure out what you can do better next time. Use it as a lesson to discover what does and doesn’t work for you.
Don’t let your ego get in the way of owning up to your mistakes.
Some say it takes a special kind of personality to succeed in this field, and that’s the kind of person that makes a locker room measuring contest out of the best parts of their life, and then proceed to blame someone else when something goes wrong. During a panel discussion at Google’s Insider Night in NYC two weeks ago a Googler talked about the importance of owning your mistakes as much as your accomplishments. In the NYC office each team meeting begins with a session called “Magical Mistakes” where Googlers discuss their biggest mistake and learning experiences. These spanned from leaving a water ring on the table, to almost destroying a new build of Chrome by leaving out a semicolon or two. These discussions foster an environment where employees have the opportunity to build trust and mitigate imposter syndrome since employees can relate to each other. These conversations are an important part to Google’s culture — it’s an important part of group projects and working in a team in the industry one day.
When you admit to mistakes, it brings clarity to opportunity gaps and elevates a deeper sense of accountability that can be shared amongst a team. Everyone begins to value the importance of having each other’s back. Vulnerability is a sign of strength and trust, yet many people are tentative to reveal what has traditionally been viewed as a weakness — too concerned with how they’ll be perceived by others. They believe it will undermine their executive presence and make them seem less authoritative. More comfortable hiding behind their status, they haven’t built the confidence to leverage their influence and put their ideas and ideals to the test. This creates a real barrier between people, at a time when more than ever people want to relate to their leaders, role models, and mentors as individuals and want to know that they’ve experienced the same problems and overcome similar obstacles to get where they are today. I’ve broke the fourth wall of my life to my friends and mentees these days and they’ve thanked me for that.
You come first.
Your physical, mental and emotional health is what’s most important. Don’t jeopardize your well-being. If you feel you are in danger of damaging your health in some way please talk to someone. That class, or new job, or whatever the circumstance may be, might not be right for you. Practice self-care often and do not let your fear of failure ruin your ability to get through your everyday life with your family and rights by your side.
It’s what you can do, not necessarily what someone else told you you can do that matters.
We all struggle with grade failure, even if our health is at risk. My experience at Wentworth shifted my mentality of how to define myself and how to value myself In many ways. I valued myself as a software engineer and as a person based on my learning experiences than by a number. All that number does for me now is it shows me what I still have to learn, and I have the rest of my life to figure it out. Experiences with failure are incredibly important because as long as you can perform well, make cool things, and not be afraid of failure, you’re golden. The modern professional world caught up to this philosophy. Despite what old world academia says I have these experiences to thank for receiving offers from one of my dream jobs, for my project portfolio, for leveling up my coding abilities, for loving myself more and more everyday.
Let your failures define you in a positive way. If you failed that means you found a way that doesn’t work and you’ve learned something. Learn from your own failures, and learn from the failures of the people around you. You’ll only go further.