Worrying Less and Embracing Failure

- 5 mins

Worrying Less: How I learned to focus on the important things

“That the birds of worry and care fly over your head, this you cannot change, but that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent.” – Chinese Proverb

Let's face it - we all worry a lot more than we often need to, but saying "don't worry" doesn't tend to help all that much. When I'm worried, it tends to be difficult to calm myself down and think about something else.

Increasingly the past couple years I had found myself worrying about a lot of things - college admissions, major admissions, internships, grades, etc. And as I worried more, I missed out on a lot of other opportunities. Opportunities to have fun, to live life to the fullest, and to make memories.

My first year of college wasn't typical to that of most people. While most people think of going to sports games, being involved with multiple clubs, and hanging out with friends all the time, I was dead-set on one thing and one thing only: getting into my major.
Now, while some might commend me on my focus, I personally regret the weight that I put on myself during that year, and the various things I missed out on as a result. But going into my second year of college without this weight on my shoulders, I decided to try something different. "What if I worried less about grades this year?" was my idea. Now, I'm not saying that I was about to do nothing and give up on trying, but I wanted to find a better balance between grueling over assignments and having fun experiences. Sure, I'm here to learn, but it would be one hell of a mistake if I managed to riddle away 3.5 years of my life that are relatively full of freedom and opportunity.

Looking back on the past year of college, I would say that I ended up figuring out how to be less worried in the end of it all. So how did I do it? Well, it wasn't instantaneous. In my first term I had the bright idea to take 5 courses along with TAing, 3 of which were in CS. Oof.
Now, while that didn't end up giving me a lot of time to make those fun memories I was talking about earlier, it did allow me to work on one thing - worrying less about my grades. And I discovered an interesting effect. Even though I worried less when I got a poor grade on an assignment or assessment, I was, more or less, doing just as well as when I was full of anxiety over grades. As long as I was still trying, worried or not, I was being successful. I slowly became comfortable with myself, knowing that no matter what grades I was getting, I was trying my hardest.

Now that semester came and went, and I felt really burnt out after it. Like, the thought of doing any coursework the next semester seemed absolutely daunting to me. I had spent a lot of my academic energy, and so I decided to make a shift. As I was already on track to graduate early (and I still am), I decided to take a reduced courseload - 2 CS classes, statistics, and TAing. I figured I could use that extra time I had to enjoy myself, go on adventures around Vancouver, and generally feel less constrained by work. Let me say, it worked. Even after the academic sprint that was the previous semester, I felt energetic enough to succeed in my coursework, while still having some free time to enjoy myself.

Besides this, I also found that employing the use of a personal journal was very helpful. Every night I would try to write down simple things about what happened in my day. What went well? What went poorly? What's on my mind that might be causing me stress?
Getting all that out in writing really helped me to let go of the worries that might be attached to some of it, and to see things in perspective. And speaking of perspective, I think that it's the most important takeaway I've had this past year. In the moment, we can often get caught up in things just because we're anxious about them. Everything else seems to stop, and it can become so easy to find yourself focusing on one thing. I like to think that it's really similar to programming, as you can find yourself debugging an issue for hours, and what seemed like something that was impossible to fix can become trivial when someone else comes along with a different perspective. When we take a step back from the task at hand, putting it in perspective works wonders for reducing worry. So what if you fail that midterm? In the moment, it sucks. You feel bad, and that you should have done better. But if you put it into perspective, you can see even failure as a valuable learning experience. You can look back at your mistakes, and pledge not to make the same ones again by taking a different approach in the future. Learning is a constant process, and what separates the good from the bad learners are the ones who don't just experience failure and feel bad for themselves, but the ones who look it straight in the eyes, embrace it, and learn from their mistakes. By gaining perspective and realizing that even failure is a valuable learning experience, I've been able to curb my worry, and become a much stronger person.

William Walcher

William Walcher

Computer Science Student at UBC

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