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Regretting regret: redefining my relationship with failure

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NOVEMBER 30, 2018

If you look up the definition of no ragrets in Urban Dictionary, you’ll find the following:

“When you don’t regret anything, not even a letter.”

This modern adage first made its appearance in the comedy movie “We’re The Millers.” Scotty P obliviously revealed the misspelled credo on his chest to the characters played by Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis, and it has since become a classic film reference. It’s funny, but I never really thought Scotty P was onto something other than a mere laugh track.

When I was younger, I was very cautious about making any perceivable mistakes that I couldn’t erase. My eight-year-old heart sank at the thought of disappointing my parents by daring to talk back, and in middle school, even the most subtle of conflicts with friends left me feeling defeated. And I refused to write with a pen. I could accept that I would often make mistakes on paper, but pens made them permanent—completely unerasable. If I was prone to mistakes, how could I relinquish the possibility of ever correcting them? It seemed that even in the most basic of tasks, there was room for regret, and regret for a lot more than a single letter.

It’s unsurprising then that for as long as I could remember, I had this unspoken agreement with myself that I would try my absolute best. In high school, this meant studying for endless hours throughout the week. This is not to say that I studied responsibly; in fact, I would almost always find myself succumbing to the temptations of my chronic procrastination in the earlier hours of the day, week, month, or quarter. However, I still committed myself to the completion of my work, meaning that most nights ended up being late nights. I would exhaust my mind and my body just to ensure that I never arrived to an exam only to be struck with the paralyzing realization that I knew nothing. I would fall behind in school work and to eventually make up for it, I developed the habit of compromising.

I’d skip multiple mandatory cross country practices. All too often, I reserved my weekends for schoolwork, aside from the fifteen and a half hours of makeup binge sleep I allowed myself to indulge in on Friday nights. Most days, I couldn’t rationalize taking care of my health and doing what I loved before academics.

Unknowingly, I was driven by motives deeply rooted in a fear of regret. I feared that one day, I might regret the time I chose to go out with friends when the next, I had a deadline for my “Moby Dick” essay. I thought I might rue the night I told myself it was okay to get more than five hours of sleep, despite having only glazed over the Spanish subjunctives just before my oral exam. I was so worried I’d look back at these decisions and regret them that I never took the time to really appreciate my education. I worked not for the purpose of learning, but for the goal of pulling off a good grade through my typical method of cramming, only to forget my last-minute newfound knowledge the following week.

That’s why it wasn’t until this semester that I found myself failing a class.

I added CS70 without much thought when I couldn’t get into 61B. I committed myself to it despite the fact that I had two mandatory discussions scheduled during the hour and a half of lecture; I clicked away and quickly bypassed the CalCentral warning that scolded me for signing up for classes with conflicting times. I always prevailed in the end somehow, so I decided to ignore it.

Thus began a series of poor decisions.

I began with my typical routine of procrastination. I did not attend lectures, nor did I force myself to watch the course captures the same day. I went to only one discussion before I forgot CS70 held discussions. I only glanced at my homework a day or two before they were due, only to realize that I needed the full week to prepare and work through it with a TA by my side and a study group at office hours.

Physically and mentally burned-out after years of hard work and little reflection on my priorities, I grew less and less motivated. I sporadically mustered the drive to watch half a lecture on 2x mode, but I no longer felt the same commitment to making up my lost time and work like I did in the past. Back then, I was so afraid of what would happen if I never made up my unattended lectures, discussions or missed notes. This semester, I saw the results in the form of two very unfortunate test scores.

This decision of mine to become so fully disengaged from my class has had me feeling stressed, anxious, and at times, very disappointed in myself. Yet if I could go back and do it all over again, I’d do it just the same.

In spite of all my hard work in the past, I never felt like I was working toward a particular passion. Though I tirelessly worked to no end, I didn’t overwork myself for the purpose of succeeding. Rather, I developed my work ethic to avoid failure. Back then, I hadn’t realized that the two were not the same.

What I gained from this experience was much more than I had ever gained from a single class.

I learned not to feel frustrated with myself when distracting thoughts and feelings clouded my head. I learned instead to let myself break when I needed to, to recognize my reflections and to find a way to effectively address them.

I learned to take time for myself. I learned that I could only endure office hours for so long, and when camping out at Soda the day of the deadline proved unproductive, I learned it was okay to walk out and run to the Fire Trails instead. I learned that that fifteen minute phone call that lasted an hour and a half was not an hour a half wasted because I got to talk to somebody I love. I learned that it was sometimes worth agreeing to study with friends even when I knew we wouldn’t be studying.

I learned that it’s okay to snooze my alarm in the morning, because the world won’t fall apart if I don’t turn in an assignment on time. I learned that my world’s much closer to falling apart when I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in days.

I learned to prioritize the class that inspired me most. The mornings that I read my book for the Happiness Advantage DeCal were some of my favorite mornings. I learned to wake up early to meditate, and I learned to leave time before bed to journal. I learned to take the time to recognize and write about three things I am grateful for every single day.

I learned to do something that makes me happy every single day.

I learned not to compare myself to others when I felt inadequate or like I didn’t belong at Berkeley. I learned that we all have different priorities at different times, and I shouldn’t feel ashamed of mine.

I learned to learn for the sake of learning. When I crammed for that second midterm in CS70, I felt surprisingly calm. I knew it was unlikely I would pass, but despite that I felt myself grasping new concepts and enjoying the learning process. Ultimately, I knew this semester that in the end, I probably could pass the class with a minimum grade, but I also knew that I didn’t want to just get by. I committed myself to retaking this class because the second time around, I want to really learn it.

This semester, I learned to fail. I completely redefined my relationship with failure. I continually reshaped my mindset so that I could grow from it and see value in even the least promising of experiences. I learned to look back on that failure and not to feel regret.

When I was younger, I refused to write with a pen. Today, I only carry pens. The point is not to erase your mistakes and your failures. The point is to notice them—to lock them in permanence and to keep them exactly as they are. Because if I were to regret my past, I would completely overlook the value to be gained from those experiences. It turns out that the only letters I allowed to hold me back were the ones on my transcript.

Contact Shaked Salem at [email protected]

DECEMBER 01, 2018