At 14 years old, I left home for boarding school. All of a sudden, I discovered I could screw around as much as I wanted with no consequences. There was no one to nag me to study. Mom wasn’t there to wake me up if I slept through my alarm. I had to learn to fend for myself as the fresh-faced and scrawny kid that I was.
To say the transition was difficult would be an understatement. I had to learn to take care of myself and make decisions that my parents had always made for me previously. The academic rigor of my middle school was nothing compared to the new workload I faced. My poor work ethic and chronic laziness had not been much of a problem in middle school as I had been able to keep up mostly A’s during those years despite my lack of effort.
My first assessment freshman year was a quiz on Homer’s Odyssey in English. I had recently been introduced to SparkNotes, which secured my demise. On quiz day, I walked in with my head high, feeling confident knowing I had saved myself hours of time and effort in actually reading the text. As soon as I received the quiz, however, my smile disappeared.
Our teachers had caught on and were a step ahead, purposely failing to include questions on anything SparkNotes had covered, instead going for certain obscurities that could only be found by completing the reading. I left knowing I had done poorly, but nothing prepared me for receiving the quiz back with a 25 percent —which were mostly pity points, as I had gotten every question wrong. A lack of effort on my part generated similar outcomes across the board.
Ashamed, I refused to meet with my teachers, choosing instead to hide in shame of my less than stellar performance. As I realized my efforts at succeeding were futile, motivation escaped me, and I slacked even harder. I blamed external factors for my poor performance rather than myself. Procrastination became my middle name (fitting, given that my middle initial is P). “Everyone is so much smarter than me,” I lamented constantly, brimming with jealousy. I was resentful for not being able to simply do better and blamed the world for my failures rather than myself.
Not once did I think that maybe those around me were succeeding because they were working harder. I could never bring myself to re-evaluate my habits because I was scared of change. The reality was that working harder would force me out of my comfort zone, something I wasn’t ready to face. I was used to the plush comfort that had been my existence for the previous 14 years of my life. My transcript reflected this. I had gone from a straight A student to considering myself lucky to earn a B. My bar, which had previously been so high, continued to drop lower and lower.
I had always believed everything would simply fall into place for me, that I could continue on the path I was on and that it would all work out somehow. This attitude plagued me for a long time. I was deeply unhappy with my laziness and slowly opened my eyes to the lack of motivation I had, but I still was not able to make a change because I was not ready for the discomfort that real effort and hard work brought.
Junior year came around, however, bringing with it much needed change. It was not the constant reminder from everyone that my grades would “really matter this year” for college. Change came with my discovery of non-analytical writing.
First semester, I enrolled in a creative writing class simply because I had heard it was easy — by this point, I was looking for anything that would help offset the negative weight that I knew precalculus, APUSH and AP biology were going to have on my grade point average.
As it turned out, creative writing was so much more than that. For the first time in high school, I was forced to think outside of the box, away from the textbook, and let my imagination run wild on the page in the form of short stories and poetry.
Additionally, I kept a journal and wrote entries every night — a requirement of the class — providing valuable space to gather my thoughts and reflect. Student critique provided the opportunity for people other than my teachers to read my work. The positive feedback I began receiving was a huge boost to my self-esteem and was a refreshing breath of air.
Rather than receiving papers back with a subpar grade and lots of red ink, I was able to take the critique I had received on my drafts and turn them into pieces worth reading. I developed a sense of pride from this that translated into my other work. I didn’t become a straight-A student overnight, but I was able to translate the effort I put into my short stories and poetry into other academic areas.
My confidence improved, as did my motivation, and I even submitted some of my work to our school’s literary magazine and received complimentary feedback: a pleasant surprise.
The power of hindsight has shown me that failure was the jolt I needed to grow out of old habits and form new ones. Discovering something I was passionate about and somewhat skilled at motivated me and helped me realize that to succeed, I needed to develop a sense of pride in my work.
The cliché “success is earned not given” was not something I believed when I entered high school, but over the years, I came to appreciate that I was going to have to experience some discomfort if I wanted to see the results I desired. No one who ever made a difference just “got by.”
For me, learning how to work hard not only required a shift in my attitude, but a shift in the way I viewed life as a whole — no longer could I spend the rest of my existence only choosing the “safe” route.
To achieve anything, you have to subject yourself to some discomfort and displeasure. Only after you take the leap of faith do you have the right to trust that it will all work out.