First semester at university I got a 2.2 GPA. That was a ~58% average at my school and 0.3 away from being on academic probation.
I rarely attended lectures, crammed for every exam, and completed all my assignments at the last minute due to not being able to fix extreme procrastination. I even ended up failing a course. The next semester wasn’t much better, and all I cared about was my social life and trying to get laid.
Second year I was out of residence and decided to start taking things more seriously. I tried pretty hard to get better grades, but still only managed a GPA of 3.2, slightly below a B+ average.
I hoped to do better still the second semester, but there was one class that I absolutely hated and never attended. I barely did the work, and thought I could scrape by with a passing grade.
But I miscalculated, bombed the final exam, and failed a second course. That was another “F” on my transcript, not to mention $700 down the drain.
This was a disappointing year and I started to doubt my ability to succeed academically. I had been pretty smart in high school, but here I seemed at best “average/slightly above average”, and surrounded by a lot of really smart people.
I had put a decent amount of effort in, but was still only able to get “OK” grades. I began to wonder, was it even possible for me to be successful here?
What if I just wasn’t capable of getting high grades at a good university? Maybe I just wasn’t smart enough? Both my parents had been academics with PhDs, why couldn’t I be like them?
I knew university wasn’t as hard as “real life” would be. What if my capacity to succeed was just limited? Maybe there was something innate that made people successful, and I just didn’t have it.
I felt like a failure and started getting depressed. If I couldn’t be successful here, how could I be successful at anything in life?
I spoke to a mentor of mine and told her I was worried I didn’t have the capacity to succeed. Her reply completely changed my perspective and has stuck with me to this day. More importantly, it ultimately proved to be correct.
“It’s not about capacity,” she said, “It’s about choices.”
From that point on I stopped worrying about “capacity”, and started making different choices.
- I chose to spend more time studying
- I chose to attend all my lectures
- I chose to do all the readings for my classes
- I chose to take a lot of notes
- I chose to challenge grades I thought were unfair, and was successful on more than one occasion
- I chose to experiment with study habits to find what worked best for me
- I chose to speak in discussion groups, even though I was nervous about talking in front of other people
Slowly but very surely my grades got better. So much so that by the last year of my degree I set the goal of getting a 4.0, the highest GPA offered at my school.
That was straight “As” so there was no room for slip-ups. The first semester I worked harder than I ever had in my life trying to achieve that goal.
I put a stupid amount of pressure on myself and it was 4 months of extreme emotional ups and downs. I was highly stressed 90% of the time and I remember suffering serious (self-induced) anxiety after getting an “A-” on my first midterm.
After all that.. I failed to reach the goal and only got a 3.8. But I learned more about effective work habits, time management, and how to go full-on “nose to the grindstone” than I ever had before in my life.
The next semester was my last and I didn’t care about grades half as much. I was mostly just thinking about graduating at the end of the year and what I would do after. But because I had learned so much, because my standards were so much higher and because I continued to make those same choices, I actually did even better and got a 3.92.
So even though technically I had failed to reach my goal, I was still happy. A 3.8 and 3.9 is a good GPA by anyone’s standards. But it wasn’t ever about what other people thought, and in fact I talked to almost no one about grades, ever.
The only thing that mattered to me was that I had proved to myself that I could do it.
So next time you doubt yourself about anything, just remember: life is about choices, not capacity.
Can you relate? Have you ever seriously doubted yourself about something, only to later succeed and prove yourself wrong? Let us know what you think in the comments below.