Undergraduate Awards Journal: Failure and Success

Thought I’d share a piece that has just been published in the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Journal. It was a real honour to be asked to write it. Hope you like it.

Success and Failure- what field mice and university students have in common.

Robert Burns’ touching poem “To a Mouse” is about a farmer who accidentally overturns the nest of a tiny field mouse with his plough. Inspired by the “cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,” he likens his condition to that of human kind. The mouse’s hard work and dedication in building the nest ultimately comes to nothing, much as human schemes often go awry: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, 
Gang aft agley.”

While success can be defined in many different ways, not just in terms of achieving professional, monetary or academic results, and luck plays its devilish part in determining which nests get overturned, failure and success are interwoven and what we learn from our failed attempts is important.

The discovery of the Higgs Boson, announced on 4 July 2012, excited scientists around the world. But the theoretical idea of the Higgs Bosonhad first been proposed in 1964 and it took 48 years of experiments and careful observation before scientists could confirm it.

Along the same lines, James Joyce had to approach 22 publishers before succeeding in publishing Dubliners. Indeed the original Ulysses, that of Homer, took ten years to return to his precious Ithaca after the Trojan War. Therefore determination seems to hold the key.

In his work “Of Human Freedom,” the Stoic philosopher Epictetus has some words of inspiration: “The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic-class material.”

Indeed the London Olympic and Paralympic games this summer showcased countless examples of winners and losers, success and failure. The Irish Paralympic Team, which collected 16 medals, is surely a shining example of success; the difficulties that the athletes overcame in order to realise their accomplishments tell a truly amazing tale.

It seems in our everyday contacts, both personal and over the Internet, we are encouraged to show off our brightest colours. People usually ask what we have achieved, but rarely are we asked to list our failures. I believe the road we take to reach our goals is equally important.

During my time spent at Trinity College Dublin, both as an undergraduate and a postgraduate student, I have experienced my own share of failures and successes. In my second year, I sat the Scholarship exams, which, if successfully completed, enable students to become Scholars of the university. I did not make the grade. Undeterred, I sat the exams once more in my third year: again, I failed. This time, I was very disappointed. On Trinity Monday, the day new Scholars are announced, the sight of successful candidates walking around campus in their newly acquired black robes was a difficult one to take.

But the memory of this setback made me appreciate what I later achieved: in my final year, I obtained first class honours and a gold medal from Trinity College and was highly commended in the 2011 Undergraduate Awards for my essay on urban growth and sustainability.

Of course, like peacocks, we humans enjoy showing off the dazzling shades of our plumage and I for one plead guilty! Yet the grey, sooty feathers we try to conceal have interesting stories to tell. What gets brushed under the rug is often just as important to our personal development as what we have achieved.

Whatever the setback and whatever the goal, what counts, in my opinion, is the determination to continue trying and the awareness that there will be plenty more hiccups, but also gratification, along this exciting journey to Ithaca.

“If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”- Thomas Edison.

To view the full piece in the journal click here. 



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