CAREER & UNIVERSITY
How Failure Changed My Career
Francis Piche Student Software Engineer, McGill
24 September 2017
This morning while I was plucking away with my guitar, a misplacement of my 4th finger reminded me how much I’ve changed in the last 5 months. The momentary physical pain was a very real reminder of where I was just those few months ago and the progress that’s been made.
A minor flesh wound marked the end of the beginning, and the beginning of the rest.
Let me explain.
I Sucked at What I Was Good At
Every summer since I was in 9th grade I’ve worked in a kitchen. Like any other fourteen-year-old kid, I just wanted money to buy videogames, candy and not have to beg my parents for it. I started out as a dishwasher, worked my way up to line-cook, and worked at the same little restaurant until I graduated from high-school.
It’s always crazy in a kitchen. Temperatures are high, demand is high, tension is high and the pace is never comfortable. I liked it though. The challenge made the days go fast, and the sweat made my money feel earned.
I liked it, and I was pretty good at it.
During the semester I’d always do well. It was just never an issue. I cared about school, was interested in the subjects, and identified myself as the kid who gets good grades.
I liked it, and I was pretty good at it.
Then I come to McGill.
Almost overnight, I sucked. I was struggling at everything I previously considered myself good at. I understood next to nothing in my classes, and I hardly had a work ethic since I never needed one before.
I knew immediately I was running a different race. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
I managed to do alright by adapting, working hard, all that stuff. But my confidence was gone. I lost my identity as “the know-it-all kid”. Suddenly what I thought was a “talent” was just the standard. I didn’t fail, necessarily, but it was certainly humbling.
That summer I thought I’d find something familiar with a cooking job again. My resume was pretty good, so I got a job in literally minutes. I made three cold-calls to restaurants in the area, and in five minutes had an interview lined up.
On the first day, I realized immediately again that I was in a completely new world.
Nothing I did was right. Suddenly the bar was raised double. I had to re-learn everything I thought I knew. I could tell the chef was disappointed in his hire, and I had no idea what I was doing wrong.
“I thought I was good at this…”
Day three, the training wheels came off. The cook I was replacing had left, and I was on my own for the first time. Twelve-o-clock hit and the lunch rush came.
I was behind on all my orders, lettuce went flying, and I was in a whirl.
I’d dealt with kitchen stress before, but this was on a new level. My hands were shaking, I was clumsy, my thinking was clouded and I must’ve jumped two feet every time the chef yelled out another order.
After the dust settled, and I picked up the pieces of broken confidence, I went home to think about how to improve.
The next morning, I came in to work with feeling of pure dread. I did the best I could to prepare for what I knew was coming, but by eleven, my hands started to shake again. I knew that if I was this stressed out, I wouldn’t improve.
Nothing too gruesome, I’d cut my finger before. I quickly wrapped in in paper towel and went over to the sink without looking at it.
“Great now I have to go ask my chef where the first aid kit is… I’m going to look like such a tool again.”
I’m not going to pretend it was some horrific injury, because it really wasn’t. I’d cut the tip of my pinky finger clean off, but not too far down.
I’m also not going to pretend it was some grand traumatic experience. I felt fine, and actually didn’t think I’d failed at anything.
At first I was thinking, “oh it’s okay, accidents happen. I’ll be back at work tomorrow”.
But the Montreal public health care system gave me a lot of time to think. (6 hours in the ER)
I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t just an accident. I knew on a sub-surface level that it was the stress of the feelings of inadequacy that lead to this incident. I knew that if I wasn’t so worried about what my boss would think of me, worried about why I was no longer succeeding in the things I used to, that I would have been calm. My hands wouldn’t shake, my thinking would be clear, and my heart would beat normally. I knew that my mental state sabotaged my physical one.
I remember weighing the pro’s of a few bucks against 4 entire months to work on my career. To invest time into myself.
I never went back to that job, and it was the best decision I’ve made in my entire life. I decided to devote my summer to my studies, (which at the time was atmospheric chemistry) and work on my mental health.
I never thought it would lead me here.
The Immediate Effect:
For the entire month of May, I was a hermit. My girlfriend was out of town, I’d just moved into a new apartment, and was now sitting at home with a stumped finger and nothing to do. I told myself I would read, build good habits, study hard and get way ahead.
I did none of those things.
I wrote a post a while back about “Flipping the Switch”, which explains how a single decision can be the beginning of accomplishing your goals. Key word being “beginning”. If you haven’t stuck out any goals yet, what makes you think next time will be different?
I don’t know how many times I told myself I would workout consistently, eat better, read more, whatever. I didn’t have a framework, no stable base from which to launch these pursuits.
So I started small. I thought, if nothing else, I’ll learn how to take care of myself.
The progress I made in the month of May was this:
-I showered regularly.
-I shaved regularly
-I brushed my teeth regularly.
-I made weekly meal prep a habit.
The progress was small, and nowhere near my expectations. Outside of doing those, I ended up basically just playing video games all day and watching Netflix in my bathrobe.
I started to doubt whether I made the right choice. I started doubting whether I would ever amount to anything… It felt like it was getting worse. I was letting myself down yet again.
Still, I don’t regret it. It was a necessary step in piecing together my self-confidence.
Progress was still made, however insignificant it might look from the outside. I was clean, and well-fed. I spent a lot of time planning and thinking about my career as well.
June things picked up. I started learning Java programming by watching tutorials online. I just wanted to get a leg up on the fall semester, and I was studying some chemistry stuff as well.
June got these locked in:
-2-3 hours of solid study per day.
-Keeping my room clean.
This was also around the time that I started to think about programming as a career. I was enjoying it so much more than anything I’d done with chemistry, and the career outlook was way more appealing. Just a bachelor’s degree for double a M.Sc chemist? Freelance opportunity? Business opportunity? Work abroad?
It was starting to look good.
I still wasn’t meeting half the goals I’d set for myself. I wasn’t anywhere near the level of productivity and proficiency I’d always aspired to have.
Again, I don’t regret it, because I was making progress. Laying the habits and foundations that would make me successful later.
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.
Full Steam Ahead.
By July, nothing could stop me. By now I had committed fully to my transition. I’d officially registered in Software Engineering.
It was full steam ahead.
I’d gotten my hands on recordings of the Intro to Programming course at McGill, and the free book: “Think Java: How to Think Like a Computer Scientist” and it was full steam ahead. I was plowing through 5 lectures per day, and read the entire book cover to cover.
I’d started working on the website, built my first Java program and was starting to feel like it was all worth it.
That month I:
-Worked 8-10 hours a day
-Stopped wasting time on social media
-Stopped playing videogames more than 30-60 minutes per day
August stayed the same, and now I’m working harder than ever before, with consistency.
Now I’m cranking out a 1500+ word post, 4 workouts and six 15 hour workdays per week without fail. None of which would have been possible without the foundation laid down this summer.
So now, every time my damaged nerve tissue sends a sharp pain up my arm, I remember what life was like just 5 months ago.
It’s such a short period of time for so much growth, and I’m proud of who I’m becoming. For years I’ve wanted to become a productive, career minded person, but I was sabotaging my progress with unhealthy habits and a shaky foundation.
I can’t wait to look back another 5 months from now, 5 months from then, and another 5 months from that.
The point of sharing this is to show that from a failure, from being at our lowest point, is sometimes the best time to change. And that change doesn’t happen overnight.
Habits take time to cultivate.
Take them on one at a time.
But what ever you do, keep moving forward.
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