This post could also be called On Failure, or On Working Hard, or On Learning Life’s Lessons the Hard Way.
When I was young, I spent most of each summer in our above-ground pool, swimming and jumping and tumbling and doing laps of its 20-foot length.
I thought I was a good swimmer and my view of my ability wasn’t challenged until Year Five when I participated in my first swimming carnival. In preparation, we had PE lessons at the pool and had to show the teacher how well we could swim across its breadth so she could assign us to a group based on our ability.
Full of confidence, I dived in at the shallow end and set to it. Not owning a pair of goggles, I closed my eyes to protect them from the chlorine and swam my heart out. The chlorine stung each time I tried to open my eyes, so I kept them shut. I continued swimming until I reached the other side. Panting and with smarting eyes and aching arms, I wiped the water from my face and looked up. I was near the deep end, and my class at the shallow end were laughing at me for having veered so far off course.
I was relegated to the group for poor swimmers. I was so disappointed—my vision of myself as a good swimmer was destroyed. I wanted to be a good swimmer, so I did more laps of our pool and my father took me to the pool a few mornings so I could practice. When it came time for the swimming carnival, I entered a full-length race. I remember the teacher checking if I was sure I could do it, and I nodded, hoping I could.
When it came time for my race, I pushed my arms through the water as fast as they could go and kicked a wake an outboard motor would have been proud of. I was still without goggles, so I couldn’t see exactly where I was going, but at least I had the lane ropes to guide me. I went hard, and started to puff and tire. I tried to keep going, but not being able to see the end, I grabbed the lane rope and stopped. I was only a few metres from the finish, and I hadn’t realised.
I felt humiliated and thought everyone was laughing at me again. And I felt like a failure. I had underestimated the effort and the practice required to be able to swim that distance.
Before the next summer, I set about learning to swim properly. I joined a swimming club and trained with a swimming instructor. And I bought goggles.
The following year, I made the swimming team.
From that experience, you might think I learnt valuable lessons about not relying on natural talent, and about hard work and practice bringing dividends. But I didn’t.
For one Launceston Competitions, I hadn’t properly memorised my poem, yet I hoped I’d remember it on the day without prompting. I didn’t.
Before one piano exam, I hadn’t played one of my pieces through without making a mistake, yet I hoped I’d pull it off on the day. I didn’t.
One-by-one, as things got harder and natural ability didn’t get me through, I dropped things I’d once been good at and enjoyed—speech and drama, piano, even swimming.
I still did well in school, especially in Maths and Science. Those subjects came easily to me—thank goodness, or I don’t think I’d be sitting here today. I quite liked solving Maths and Physics problems, so whenever I could drag myself to do homework, that’s what I did, and I ignored English and Humanities and anything I found difficult.
Over the years, I gave up everything that required hard work or effort, and by the end of school, I was relying on natural ability, the bare minimum of work, and last-minute cramming to get me through.
I got into Medicine, and with no idea of how to study, I set about trying to become a doctor.
The first year, being mainly Science, was okay, but second year required rote learning—the names of body parts, their origins and insertions, and going over and over the various chemical cycles of the body until they stuck in the memory. That needed a self-discipline I didn’t have. On top of that, I was having a hard time coping with life in general, so I rarely turned up to lectures and tutorials.
A kindly Anatomy lecturer pulled me aside one day, and asked me if something was wrong. I couldn’t tell her how I felt, because I thought it was all my own fault—that I was lazy and lacked self-discipline. She told me I had the ability to be in the top ten in the year, but I needed to turn up and work. Her words meant a lot to me, even at the time. She’d looked past my behaviour and noticed I had potential. At that time, though, I couldn’t pull myself out of the hole I was in.
I dropped out that year—deemed failed—and returned the following year to try again. I made it through the year and was in the middle of exams when my sister was killed. I passed, but the year following her death, I was incapable of pulling myself out of any hole, and failed again.
It was all too much. I was still grieving my sister’s death and I’d failed. I felt as if I’d lost everything, and I felt like giving up, throwing everything away. Curling into a ball and hoping to disappear into blackness. I didn’t care if I died. I wouldn’t have actively killed myself, but I wouldn’t have minded if someone, or something, had ended it for me.
With no idea of what I would do, or even if I wanted to do anything, I dragged myself through each day. I worked the next year, and then took myself off to Europe, far away from Tasmania and its people and memories. I’ve written about this before, and how I had to escape. A few people thought I was making the wrong decision, and told me so. But there were others, including my GP, who thought it was a good idea.
It was the best thing I could have done. Slowly, slowly, far away from the bleakness of my Tasmanian life, I groped my way forwards. There were still times of darkness, but at some point during that year, I decided I wanted a decent life. And it was a decision; I remember making it. I remember the realisation that I could either go on living like that and bumming around until I died, or I could be a decent person, work hard, and have a decent life.
I wanted to be a good person and have a good life. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I knew I had to make changes.
I decided to give Medicine another go.
Maybe those lessons I learned from wanting to swim with the good swimmers and make the length of the pool kicked in, but I just knew I’d work hard this time.
I had a few hurdles to jump first. I’d only been granted one year’s leave from Medicine, and I’d taken two. I’d requested permission for an extra year, but the letter informing me I had to return had gone astray, and the second one reached me a couple of months after the Uni year had started. These were in the days before email, and when correspondence between Europe and Australia took weeks, even months, especially when backpacking.
I applied to return to Medicine but the Medical Faculty refused, so I had to appeal to the Full Board of the University (I can’t remember their exact title), on which sat representatives from all faculties.
I turned up at the designated time and waited in the hall outside the Board room. At one point, the door opened and the Dean of Medicine emerged. He said, ‘Good morning’ as he passed, and I greeted him in return, and then watched him walk off knowing he’d just been in the room making the case for my exclusion.
I remember the wood-panelled room and the Board members sitting like judges on a bench. Only one was a woman, and I recognised one other—a psychology lecturer. They were nice and asked me why I thought I should be allowed another opportunity. I told them how ill-equipped I’d been to cope with everything, what a bumpy ride I’d had, but how, in the time off, I’d pulled myself together and now felt I could cope. I remember saying, ‘I just want a clear run at it.’
As I prepared to leave, the psychology lecturer said to me, ‘I think you’ll find us more sympathetic than the Medical Faculty.’
And so I returned to study.
I was true to my word and buckled down. But I was always conscious of failure sitting on my shoulder, breathing hard against my neck. At times, I went overboard to make sure I’d pass. I worked my butt off, studying four or five hours a night and ten-hour days of a weekend. Once you’ve failed, I don’t think the fear of failing ever leaves.
It was hard to go back as a student when my original year had already graduated and were doctors. I had to swallow my pride, and not worry about what anyone thought or said.
Some were really nice and greeted me as they always had, not as someone lower on the rungs than them.
A few pretended they didn’t recognise me. One grilled me with questions until I tripped up. One wouldn’t answer my question, but told me to go look it up. One, even when I’d presented a case well, criticised me heavily and publicly.
I felt it even after I’d graduated. One former classmate, when introducing me to a couple of doctors, said, ‘This is Louise.’ She turned to me. ‘How many years did it take for you to graduate in the end?’
‘Ten,’ I said, and covered my embarrassment with a joke about being a slow learner.
I took it because I felt I deserved it and had to be humble.
Throughout medical school, I kept my sights on the goal—graduation. I put my head down and studied, and told myself to keep going until I got there. And once I was there, I hoped that feeling of being a ‘failure’ would disappear. (I don’t think it ever truly does.)
I got there. And I didn’t just Pass—I got Credits and Distinctions, and a couple of High Distinctions.
The day after I passed my final exams, I visited my old Anatomy lecturer. I told her I was graduating, and that things had worked out, personally and professionally. And I thanked her for that day in Second Year when she’d pulled me aside and shown me she cared.
On graduation day a few weeks’ later, she was waiting for me when I came out of the ceremony during which we’d taken our oath. She held a gift—a gold pendant of Mary and the baby Jesus. I still have it.
When I started work, I worked hard. Every review or reference I’ve ever had has mentioned my strong work ethic.
In the end, it was those hours of study and practice and learning that got me there. It wasn’t natural ability.
I think what I’m trying to say is that it’s not about natural talent, but about working hard.
I’m also trying to say don’t give up, never give up, even if you’ve failed.
And never be too proud to go back and start again.