Thursday, April 17, 2014

Why Failing in School Was One of the Best Mistakes I've Ever Made

"Fuuuck... I'm gonna get kicked out."

As I looked at my grades, the pretense of a bright future crashed down around me. I had been skating by for the past 2 years doing just enough to get by and it had finally caught up with me. "Two F's," I thought, " life is over."

Before college, I was a great student. Under the close supervision of my parents, I managed to stay focused enough to keep up excellent grades while taking all honors classes. It was a time when I truly believed in my grand dreams of being a scientist and a visionary leader. But once I was out of my parents' house, I quickly fell prey to the seductive charms of my new-found freedom. My nights were consumed by parties, which meant my days went to recovery.

By the time I'd reached my junior year, the bad choices I'd made dropped my GPA to a 2.3, marginally above the threshold that would trigger expulsion. The two F's also put me on academic probation, meaning another bad quarter would also get me kicked out of school.

I immediately fell into depression, accompanied by deep reflection. As I assessed my life and what I hoped to achieve with it, I realized that, as humans, we're capable of constantly redefining ourselves; that while we can't change the past, we always have the power to shape the future.

This failure was a pivotal moment in my life and the boot to the face I needed to make me get my shit together.

After that, I stopped drinking. I cut back on social activities and invested my new-found time into studying. I coincidentally "discovered" computer science around the same time. The quarter after my grand failure, I happened to take a fundamental course in computer science (data structures and algorithms, for those familiar), which was optional for my major. About half-way through the course, something amazing happened. Something clicked. It was one of those moments where you suddenly just get it and the universe becomes incredibly transparent.

From that point on, I dove into computer science with passionate fervor. I filled as many of my upper-division requirements as I could with computer science and I excelled. I was getting nearly all A's and found myself programming in my spare time. That summer, I somehow convinced a startup to take a risk on me and got an internship as a software engineer. I soon started taking graduate-level courses and getting the highest scores in the classes.

Over time, I decided that I wanted to go to grad school to study computer science in more depth. By the time the application period opened, my GPA had turned around, but I'd done so much damage earlier that it was just below the 3.0 required for graduate admissions. Undeterred, I poured myself into the application, applying for a GPA exception and rallying support from the professors I'd gotten to know through my graduate-level coursework.

On a sunny San Diego afternoon, I was sitting in the basement of the computer science building and an email from the graduate admissions officer popped into my mailbox. I felt sick to my stomach and started trembling as I nervously opened the email and started reading.

I'd gotten in.

I nearly cried as an overwhelming flood of emotion came over me. Two years after I'd obliterated my future, I sat back and reveled in the moment when I knew I'd finally earned it back.