I am failure

I have these wonderful memories of being ten and eleven years old, me and my friends hanging out in the local high school sports stadium, wondering eagerly what it would be like to be grown up kids. We played indoor volleyball. We would run through our team plan for the games. I had a motto for us, if we lose, we learn. I had that motto, though, because we always lost. We lost every game. Every week. For a whole year. We lost if we tried. We lost if we didn't. We lost if we had six players rotating or if we had five. We lost if we'd eaten beforehand or if we had plenty of water during the match. We lost when my friends' little brothers formed a team and played against us. We lost every single time. But every week we would turn up, we would hit the court, and we would play like it was possible to win.

When I was sixteen, I ran for the position of school captain. There were all these hoops to jump through - initial essays, interviews with the school principal and eventually, the popularity contest of the cohort vote. The school liked me. But they thought I was a bit too quirky and bookish. I probably still am exactly those two things, though they've ceased to be negative features. After we gave our speeches, I had several people I'd hardly spoke to come up and congratulate me. A fabulous speech, they said, you made us feel special. We know you'll do well. We know it won't be about being on stage for you, it'll be about making a difference to the school. I remember being astounded by these things. It's possibly one of the more humbling moments in my life where I've felt entirely respected for being myself. But the popular vote came out and another girl got the badge. Oddly enough, the school decided that they liked me too much to sit by the wayside and invented a new captaincy for myself and another student who were passionate about student welfare. We became the social services captains and, given the general distaste from all of the other captains at our non-popularity-contest positions, we became an almost ineffectual body. We organised meetings and raised money for charity. We had grand ideas, almost none of which we supported by the school. We tried to instigate change and hit brick walls on every turn. When we ran innovative fund-raising challenges, we raised paltry amounts that felt so unsatisfying given the calamities we were trying to help solve. I wanted to make our school better but instead felt like nobody wanted to take a seventeen year old school girl seriously.

Even educationally, I've faced failure after failure. I set myself a stupidly, almost unachievable Year 12 score challenge. I studied like mad. I studied so hard that, when our chaplain ran a mental health day and sat us down to do meditation, all I did was cry silently in the corner with exhaustion I didn't know I had.  At the end of the year, results came out and I failed myself by two whole points. I was dismayed. All that suffering for nothing. My mum, excited by the score, called all of her friends who then wanted to congratulate me on how well I'd done. It hammered those painful nails in even further. The next year, I went back to my high school, wanting to see my name on the honour roll, a huge plaque with gold-embossed names of students getting above a certain score. The ladies in administration, despite six years of seeing me scout the halls, had no idea who I was. Even that chaplain, who had had a significant role in assisting my social service projects, couldn't remember who I was. Only months after finishing school, I was invisible.

In medicine, I found myself constantly questioning the status quo and wanting to push boundaries. I devoted hours and days and months to projects and innovations that lead nowhere. The first, I had designed an educational enterprise to challenge health students, scholars, academics and health users to identify and create solutions for problems that exist in our current systems. I wanted to bring together the fresh perspective, or vuja de as it is sometimes called, on old systems that doe-eyed students have, with the knowledge of how systems function and what has failed in the past that our old-hats possess. I wanted health users to have a way of interacting with all of that to say, we hate these parts of the system and we like these other parts. I wanted to involve everyone on a level playing field. I wanted to be at the heart of what solves many things - communication, understanding and analytics. And then I wanted to partner with groups who could actually get this stuff done: NGOs, health services, universities. I had a whole plan and I had a co-founder. The problem was that I was meant to be studying medicine. I was meant to be learning from textbooks and preparing for exams. And, inevitably, those dates loomed closer and something had to give. I slowed things down, and then I stopped. My co-founder moved to Edinburgh and then back to the US, where she started her own residency program and became inundated with work. We never lost our passion for change. We just never had the resources to achieve what we wanted.

I did youth advocacy and youth government policy work on a volunteer basis while I was in medical school, as if I wasn't already busy enough studying, working for actual money and trying to get a start-up rolling. While I was in this space, I noticed this huge gap in available mentoring services for young people living in rural areas. At the same time, there were widely publicised difficulties attracting and maintaining rural students in tertiary studies, in part because of distance, but also because of cost, unfamiliarity and social circumstances. I wanted to help change that. I wanted to harness the power of the Internet to connect geographically disparate communities. It wasn't actually so important to me that these young people studied at university; it was important to me that they felt as valued and respected as their city cousins. I didn't want young people in rural, regional and remote areas to think that they were second-class citizens. And, with the growing use of Internet and the availability of fast connections to most towns and even in some remote regions, I saw a huge opportunity to bring twenty-something-year old mentors together with high school students to guide them through some of life's biggest teenage struggles. The tyranny of distance could be dissolved, to some degree, through the magic of our screens. The mentors would learn more about themselves and their own country. The students would have someone slightly older who didn't have the stigma of being their teacher to take them through modules on life, managing finances on a tight budget, health and education. I had it all laid out. I had the beginnings of partnerships with organisations who could provide content and legitimacy to the program. The problem was that schools weren't keen. Schools said they already had mentoring programs. Schools said their students wouldn't participate. Schools said they didn't want help or they couldn't afford help, even though I'd never mentioned a cost to the program. They said there was no room in the curriculum for extra help. And so, again, I failed. I failed to make a change that wasn't even for myself. And I feel like I failed all of those rural young people to whom I wanted to give an extra ray of hope.

I failed at love. That same day that I got my Year 12 academic results, I got a call from one of my mum's best friends. Find a good boy at university, she said, because after that all of the good ones disappear. I ignored this advice entirely - I spent almost all of my university career gunning after extra-curricular opportunities, academia, work opportunities and scholarships to foreign placements. In my meagre experience, men don't come with signs on their heads saying, "I'm one of the good ones," either. I've made so many friends, but romantic love has always seemed like a time-consuming inconvenience comparative to the many other singularly intellectual pursuits I could chase after. In the words of one of my insightfully realistic friends, in love you either break up or you die. Neither of these are particularly desirable.

Yesterday, I failed at the biggest dream I've had for myself since I was a tiny little five year old. I failed to Match in the US surgical residency offers. The dream, since I was little, was to move to the country where my cousins and their (now growing) families live. To a place where there are those many family things with which I'm so unfamiliar: the rough and tumble, the arguments, the barbeques, the thicker-than-water bond that binds us. I spent the better portion of last year intently devoted to that goal, studying hours and hours on end end, sacrificing seeing my friends, travel opportunities and research in an attempt to make things happen. And then, when it all came to a head, there were no offers on the table. The subsequent rounds of offers are still pending. But I failed myself on this one.

I could have painted all of these stories in the opposite light. I could have told you of all the ways I've succeeded. The scholarships I won, time and time again. The fact that I got into medicine. That I ended up on the honour roll. That I have had all of these opportunities to live and breathe innovation. That I've loved and been loved. That I've got a whole big wonderful, whacky, amazing family across the Pacific who make me laugh and cry with their blind love for a cousin so far away. But I didn't tell it this way because I don't think we talk about failure enough. And, as I said encouragingly every Friday afternoon when I was eleven, if we lose we learn.

Failure isn't the end. We learn from every one of these setbacks. We learn to try harder, or sometimes not to try at all. We learn from the experience of being there. We learn what not to do next time. Sometimes, we learn that team sports are never going to be our forte. We learn that the time isn't right. We learn that we need priorities, and sometimes the things that set our soul on fire the most aren't the number one for a little while. We learn that we have to make choices and that those choices are often really hard. Perhaps I've given up too early in the past. The worst thing about failure is if you start having regrets. If you regret that you tried. Trying isn't the thing to regret. Because if you'd never tried, you instead live with the regret of what if you'd made that bit of extra effort. But if you gave it your all and it still didn't work, then it doesn't necessarily mean a no forever, it just means a no for now. Park it. Come back later. See if it still makes your eyes twinkle. Try a different angle. If you've been running into brick walls at every turn, you either need a bulldozer or a map.

I am failure. But I am also success. And exciting things are on the horizon.


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