Yesterday I wrote about failure on a small scale. If I fail at my challenge for December, the only person I’m hurting is myself.
If only every failure was that benign. I don’t like asking for help. Like just writing off a goal when I hit the first obstacle, this is a behavior learned because earlier in my life I asked for help and suffered because of it.
I grew up in a chaotic environment that made studying or doing homework at home nearly impossible for most of my middle and high school careers. In eighth grade, the situation had reached a boiling point that would persist for years. Every moment at home was either in the calm eye of the storm knowing it couldn’t last, or being witness and sometimes party to the destruction. I couldn’t concentrate or work in that environment, and I don’t know anyone who could.
I was desperate. I reached out to a teacher for help when I was going to miss an important assignment for them.
What I received in return was nasty public dressing down in front of my class the next day about the late assignment using her knowledge of my situation to make sure it stung and humiliated me. It wasn’t the first time I’d asked for help, and it wasn’t the first time I’d been let down, but being torn down publicly like that meant I began dreading the idea of asking for help.
I developed my own solution to passing that teacher’s class and the eighth grade. I also learned to just give up when I felt overwhelmed and knew I could get away with it, academically. Eventually I ended up in a private school where I was able to make sure I could stay late after school most days of the week, and got in early most mornings. I mastered the art of doing ‘Good Enough’ to pass. I was clever enough, and lucky enough to pull it all off. I told happy lies to teachers, my classmates, and myself to make sure no one looked too deeply past the ‘obviously bright but lazy and unreliable’ facade that become the core narrative I presented as I slogged through the next 25 years.
I took Calculus I this Spring. I got a B, which I thought was pretty good, but school has changed a lot in the last 25 years, and I suspected I might have been a ‘beneficiary’ of grade inflation. I was happy to pass but worried that I didn’t feel as strong about the subject as I had about previous classes. My suspicions were, unfortunately, correct.
I withdrew from Calculus II this fall after 6 weeks and two exams that proved that the skills I came to that class with were inadequate for the course material. There were other issues, but the responsibility for my failure rests solely on my shoulders.
I could have asked for help: from my teacher, from the math tutors at school, or from my wife who has a math degree! With so many options, it seems obvious that I should have asked for help. But I didn’t, for a multitude of reasons. I felt angry that I’d apparently been handed a grade indicating skills I didn’t have in the previous course. I felt embarrassed that I was apparently ‘too dumb’ to get the material. And behind them the root of all these fears: I was terrified of asking for help and getting torn down somehow because of it. I tried to power through it myself and instinctively smothered the worst of my doubts to hide my anxiety.
There was no reason to believe my teacher, any math tutors, or my wife would humiliate me, but deep down, there’s a 13-year-old boy who still remembers being humiliated when he asked for help buried under 26 years of trying to make sure it didn’t happen again.
Not asking for help was an expensive and humiliating mistake. I need to take Calc II, and very probably Calc I, again before I finish my BS, and I have to be ready to ask for help when I do, and not be cowed by 26-year-old scars.
Knowing how to fall so you can get back up is an important skill, but sometimes you should ask for a helping hand.