To my younger self: I’m sorry I failed you.
“I’m excited to see what the future holds for you.”
“You have such a bright future ahead of you.”
“I’m so proud of you!”
I hate to brag, but my friends were super supportive of what I wanted to accomplish and the direction that I was going with my life.
These comments were little snippets of encouragement found in my high school yearbook from my senior year. Pages covered in colourful Sharpie with words that made my heart glow inside. Messages of memories and stories that only we would remember and laugh about. Well-wishes for a life ahead, even if somewhere down the line, we would all fall out of touch with one another.
At 18 years old, I was confident and ready to leave behind a place that I had known inside and out. Admittedly, it was a place that also knew a lot about me too: a structure whose walls had supported me through laughter at lunchtime, through romantic moments with boyfriends, and held me up during convulsions when I was crying from heartbreak. I could walk the halls with my eyes closed and still feel confident that I wouldn’t be lost.
But it was time to move on, to move beyond my comfort zone, and into a world where the atmosphere changed almost instantaneously. Every second would be different from the one preceding it, with little certainty of the second that would follow it.
Ask anyone that knows me and they will tell you that I am a planner.
My meticulous need to schedule, to know details, and to have everything confirmed days – weeks, if time permits – in advance was my drug. It kept me on track, it kept me afloat, and it kept me sane.
But some would say that it was my constant need to always have a plan that drove me to the point of no return. People made jokes about how I wrote things down, how I had multiple calendars (phone, Google, one month, and four-month, in case you were curious) and even spent large sums of money on elaborate day planners, just so that I could get the bang for my buck.
In truth, planning was my obsession.
I was raised with the mentality to commit to something and follow through. My parents had always instilled in my sisters and I this idea of commitment. For what follows, it is key to note that I had gotten this idea stuck in my head thanks to my parents. But at the end of it all, I can’t blame my parents for giving us good values to live by.
I took a good thing, a useful thing, and I took it to the extreme. I had many plans: a one year plan, a 5-year plan, and a long-term plan. I also obsessed over goals and getting things done.
When I was a kid starting piano lessons for the first time, I admired my piano teacher.
She always played with such grace and elegance, and she was making a living from doing something that she loved. I was determined to follow through and live in the same way.
The idea was simple: I would finish all ten levels of the Royal Conservatory of Music program by the time I was in Grade 10, so that I could have two years to get my Associate’s Diploma in Piano Performance. This was a timeline that had come together after I had completed my grade 4 exam in the 5th grade. It was achievable, I told myself, and I wouldn’t back down until I achieved what I wanted.
At least, this was what I told myself and everyone around me. I told my extended family, my friends at school, my teachers, and all the new people I met. I made a plan, I broadcasted it to the world, and now I needed to follow through with it.
They say that if you do something that you love, it won’t ever feel like work, and you will never work a day in your life. For me, piano was that something. And I was going to do everything that I could to ensure that I stayed on track and achieved what I had set out to achieve.
But of course, we know that life isn’t that simple. John Steinbeck said it best in his novella “Of Mice and Men”: “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Interestingly, it was in the 11th grade when I started to feel everything fall apart on me. Just as interesting was the fact that in my Grade 11 English class, we were reading Steinbeck’s classic. I saw myself in George Milton, one of the main characters in the story, who had dreams and a plan to escape the situation he was in with the determination to make his life better for himself.
Up until that point, I thought that my paradise lay in that diploma. But time was passing quickly, and it was only in my senior year that I had finished the program. I hadn’t even begun preparing for my diploma exam, which took at least another two years to complete.
On top of this, I was stressing out over the entire process: the timeline, my exam scores, my poor performances and my lack of memory. I wasn’t doing as well as I once was, and I continually compared myself to other pianists in the room. The comparisons were often bleak and worked to my disadvantage.
It was clear that I wasn’t going to make my goal, and it was even clearer that I was going to fail.
If there is one thing that I agonized over more than planning and details, it’s my fear of failing and disappointing others.
I had set a plan in motion and told everyone else about it. But it didn’t take a genius to tell you that I was falling behind on my plan, and it was consuming me whole. I had lost my motivation to practice, and my vulnerability to panic attacks mixed together with my poor memory led to festivals and exams being difficult for me to do.
When family and friends would ask about how the whole process was going, I would consistently say that everything was fine and that I was progressing steadily. But the truth was that I wasn’t; in fact, it was quite the opposite. I went from passion to dissatisfaction, and every passing day was a day closer to it all being over. This was a far cry from my 10-year-old self, who was determined to make a living out of something that she loved.
The agony and stress of failure and not making my plans bled into all other aspects of my life. I began to question what I was doing with my life now that I was in post-secondary education. I had other friends who had taken time off in between high school and university to pursue music and finish their diplomas. Was I making a mistake in trying to do both?
To put even more insult to injury, what you have to understand is that piano is not just “some hobby”. No matter what skill level you end up at, all parents who put their children in piano will tell you that it’s not cheap. And as a piano teacher myself, I recognize the value in not wasting time or money. But as I got lost in my disillusionment, there was this overwhelming guilt that was growing in my stomach that I was wasting my parents’ money. They had invested in me, supported me, believe in me and my ultimate plan. And this plan was now unfeasible and extraordinarily delayed.
Funnily enough, I came to this realization in a world economics class on a rainy afternoon. We were talking about the idiom of a sinking ship, and what it meant to consistently sink money into an organization that was failing. This was the first time that I really paid attention to that class the entire semester.
My whole life came to a halt when I was recommended to see a psychologist at school in the Fall of 2016.
I was fine with seeing counsellors and talking about how I was feeling, since all throughout the latter part of high school, I had consistently been going to the school counsellor to deal with issues of depression and suicidal thoughts.
But the problem was that I had no time, and this recommendation couldn’t have come at a worse time. I was finally going to take my diploma exam, in 4 months, and suddenly I had to deal with this.
For a bit of context, I was scared stiff about this exam. I had starting preparing earlier that year, in May, expecting to get it all done by December and January. I had given myself 8 months to do something bold and risky. Something that other students wouldn’t have dreamed of doing and other teachers told me that I was foolish to do. But I didn’t listen.
On top of studying for school and trying to keep my mental health at bay, I was preparing and studying for these two exams. As the exam dates got closer, my results plummeted. I had always done reasonably well on actual exams. Not outstanding, but well, and I learned to just be happy with what I accomplished.
But consistently failing practice exams was not “doing well”. These poor marks, so close to exam time, heightened my already anxious frame and further distorted my views on who I was. So far, I couldn’t seem to follow through on anything, and on top of that, I was doing everything poorly. The fear of failing was catching up with me quickly, and it wasn’t just a fear anymore: it was reality.
Fast-forward to the present.
I had passed both of my exams with flying colours back in January and just received my diploma in the mail. I found out that I was on track to graduate – another plan that I had and initially gave up on. My anxiety had decreased significantly.
So why am I only talking about this now?
I had a harmless discussion the other day with my parents when I was outlining my plan for my final four semesters in university. It was a conversation that I found I was having more and more often with my parents, probably to make it sound more real in my head and to show that i was actually thinking ahead about what was to come.
In all the times that I had brought up the triumphant fact that I was going to graduate on time, my parents always reminded me of the fact that it wasn’t them putting pressure on me. I was the one giving myself pressure. And I knew that. I accepted that fact and continued on my merry way.
But this most recent discussion was different. I tuned in a lot more. And this isn’t to say that I didn’t listen in prior conversations, because I did. I just didn’t take it to heart as much as I could have.
My dad, in his wisdom, told me to make sure that I whatever I did, whether it was school or work, to pray about it, to not be afraid, and to remember that it’s okay if I need to change my initial plans to work around whatever would come up in life. That it’s okay if I plan something and then modify the schedule to be a little more realistic.
For some context, I had laid out another plan for them to consider. I was going to be a university graduate by 23, and by 25 I wanted to be living on my own. Grad school was a possibility, but I wanted to have a job and a place first. I didn’t know what I would be working as or where I would live, but the point was that the idea was in my head and I would stop at nothing to get it done.
My parents always knew that I was a stubborn person who obsessed over future thinking. But when my dad told me to take my time, to pray, and that they would support me no matter what happened, I was speechless.
All my life, I had been out to prove to the world that I could actually be someone of value. I wanted – no, needed – to show to my family and friends that I was a success. I had obsessed over details and facts and plans that sometimes were far-fetched. But I pursued them anyway, sometimes at the expense of my relationships and personal health.
These simple words from my dad have burned into my memory from the moment the conversation ended. I had reflected on these words, my past, and how much stress and anxiety I put my own body through just to prove my self-imposed self-worth.
The takeaways from this are endless.
You are so much more than your resume. Your health and relationships are the most important. Planning is good, but be lenient with your timelines. Cut yourself some slack. Be proud of who you are. Failure isn’t the end of the world.
It’s cliche, but I have come to realize that all of these are true. Without failure, we would not be able to appreciate success and hard work. Failure doesn’t diminish your value as a human. It’s because we are human that we fail sometimes.
And this is the biggest thing to remember.