The following article is cross-posted from MedHopeful.com - a blog with entertainment and advice for budding physicians.
Whenever we hear about successful people in the newspaper, magazine, television, the Internet, or even directly from other people, we only hear about their success stories. We never hear about their failures, mistakes, or shortcomings. I guess it’s because hearing about other individuals’ successes are positive things, and hey, I’m all for positive things. In fact, learning about the success of other people is one of the things that inspires me the most.
Well, I guess this is sort of true, depending on how you define success. When I was in Grade 8, I achieved a perfect score on the University of Waterloo’s Gauss Mathematics Contest. In my final year of high school, I won the TD Canada Trust Scholarship, selected from a pool of over 3,500 applicants. So sure, if you define stuff like that as successful, then I guess I’ve been successful.
But let’s get things straight. I have been successful in the the things that have worked out for me; you know, the things you have read about me, such as in my biography on this blog. But that isn’t the whole story. And, well, you’ll never really get the whole story. And the truth of the matter is…
It’s true. Positively, absolutely, undeniably true. There are many things in my life I have lost at, made mistakes in, completely butchered, and so on. And normally you’ll never hear about those things, so I want to share these stories with you.
When I was in Grade 9, I had a massive ego when it came to math contests. I had just gotten a perfect score on the Grade 8 Gauss Contest the year before, so I had it in my mind that I was supposed to dominate the Grade 9 Pascal Contest (however, although I would not admit it to myself, a record number of perfect scores were administered the year before). During our weekly school practices, I would show off to try and impress my teacher as we went through the practices, to the point where she really believed I was going to crush this thing.
On the day of the contest, I remember going through it, and getting stuck in multiple places. I panicked. It was one of those tests where you would gain a few points by leaving the question blank instead of guessing. But I was determined to get a perfect score - and well, you can’t get a perfect score if you don’t answer all of the questions. So I just guessed on the ones I didn’t know. And this strategy obviously was not optimal - I really was better off maximizing my score by leaving some of them blank, but my ego was too big.
I remember a few months later when the scores were posted. I wasn’t even in the top 15 in my school. I was absolutely soul crushed. Pathetic as it may sound, I cried during my ride home that day.
Fast forward a year later and I was in Grade 10. Since that incident, I was determined to redeem myself. But not in an egotistical, stupid way. No, I told myself I just wanted to do my absolute best, and maximize my highest score possible, even if that did not mean a perfect score. I just wanted prove that I was capable of doing pretty darn well.
So I took the Grade 10 Cayley Math Contest. And I remember there were 2 questions that I couldn’t get. So I left them blank. And was happy doing that.
A few months later I learned that I had achieved the highest score in my school - by a wide margin. Even more amazing, I had placed 72nd out of 18,000+ students across Canada.
I’ll never forget my first scholarship interview during my final year of high school. It was early December, and I had been invited to the Regional Interviews for the Canadian Merit Scholarships (now called the Loran Awards). I made several friends earlier that year who were Canadian Merit Scholars. They all believed in me, and told me I could definitely go all the way. Again, I let this get to my head, and I went in super confident that there was no doubt I was going to make it.
Well, the day of the Regional Interviews didn’t go so well. I didn’t connect with any of my judges. There were even some spots where, in retrospect, I should have been blatantly honest with my reasons and ideas, but was too embarrassed to say anything. There were times where I didn’t have a good answer for some questions, and I should’ve said so. Instead, I let my ego get the best of me. And well, it cost me big time - I didn’t move on. I wasn’t even close. I not only felt like I let myself down, but that also let down all of my friends who believed in me.
Again I was frustrated and upset with myself. If there’s one thing that day taught me, it’s that nothing in life is a guarantee and it’s foolish to think in terms of certainties. We can have a certain expectation for achieving things, but almost nothing is absolutely certain in life. If you can’t understand this, you’re going to have a lot of trouble dealing with losing as I initially did.
Fast forward a few months later and I was invited for interviews for the TD Canada Trust Scholarship for Community Leadership. I decided to not put any expectations on myself. Moreover, I decided that I was just going to focus on being myself and speaking completely honestly about my feelings and thoughts. In fact, I remember I decided to only prepare for 20 minutes the day before the interview - unlike the hours I spent preparing for my Canadian Merit Scholarship interview.
And so the next day I walked into my TD Scholarship interview. I was myself. When they asked me some personal questions, similar to one asked at the Canadian Merit Scholarship interviews, I told them the complete truth and felt good about it. I don’t want to get into particular detail about it as it is quite personal, but one of my judges understood my issue, and was able to explain a bit more about it to the other judges, who found it quite interesting - setting a comfortable tone for the rest of our conversations. I remember walking out of that interview feeling super happy with myself, and what do you know, I ended up winning!
I’m sure you noticed that while both stories started off rough and sad, they ended on a good note - the success stories that you hear about. Of course, I did that on purpose. As you can see, I am no more successful than anyone else. I’ve won and I’ve lost. I’ve done the right thing and I’ve made mistakes. I’m really no different from most people, except in one major category.
Think about it. Let’s hypothetically say that you have a 10% chance of winning a scholarship. So if you apply to one scholarship, then you’re going to lose 90% of the time. But what if you applied to 100 scholarships? In this scenario, you would win 10 scholarships. And in most people’s eyes, that would make you extremely successful.
So what’s my point? My point is that you’re not going to be successful unless you keep giving yourself the opportunity to be successful. If you quit while it’s still early, you’ll never achieve your true potential. Just think about it: If you don’t even take the first step, you’ll never get there - that is a guarantee.
Imagine if I had given up after that Grade 9 mathematics contest, and told myself I just wasn’t cut out for it. I would never have proven myself the following year.
Imagine if I had let my frustrations get the best of me, and just gave up on the TD Scholarship. I wouldn’t have my entire undergraduate education paid for right now.
The reason I have been so successful is because I kept giving myself the opportunity to succeed. I applied to tens of scholarship in my final year of high school. I won a bunch and lost a bunch too. In high school, I applied to many extracurricular programs: I was accepted to Shad Valley but was rejected by the International Space School.
Take something as simple as studying for a test. In order to ace that test, you need to put yourself in position to be able to do that - by studying hard. If you don’t study hard, it will be nearly impossible for you to ace it. Again, students who consistently ace their courses are able to do so because they keep putting themselves in position to ace them in the first place. Success doesn’t just happen. You need to give yourself the opportunity to make it happen.
Cynics will say that by giving myself the opportunity to succeed I am also giving myself the opportunity to fail. Sure, that’s true. But what does that matter? Success and failure go hand in hand, and I dare you to find someone extremely successful who has never made major mistakes or experienced huge losses.
The difference between people who are extremely successful and those who are marginally or not successful, is that the most successful individuals don’t ever stop putting themselves in the position to succeed. They don’t waste time crying about losses; no, they just look for the next great opportunity.
Far too many times I read about or hear students say “I’m not going to apply for that scholarship, I’m not going to win anyways” or “Why should I apply to that university program? I have no shot”. If this is you, realize that you can’t win if you don’t even apply. This might seem like a simple concept, but you’d be surprised about how many people say this about everything in their lives.
Whenever I see someone do something amazing that excites me, I never tell myself “I can’t do that”. Instead, I ask: “How the heck did they do that?” A curious attitude is much more beneficial than a cynical one.
It’s easy to blame other people for our shortcomings. Maybe your guidance counselor told you that you had no shot, so you didn’t apply. Okay, sure, your guidance counselor influenced you not to apply. But who made the final decision to not apply? You.
In the end, you make all of your final decisions. In the end, somehow, you might have convinced yourself you were not good enough or that you had no shot. In the end, it is you who chooses to give up and sulk.
Sure, there are some things that are impractical and I’ll never achieve. I could probably never make it to the NBA or the NHL. Fair enough. But in general, I really believe that most people tend to underestimate what they are capable of. Conversely, the few people who are very successful tend to have a better grasp of their capabilities, and the courage and confidence to turn those beliefs into a reality.
What’s done is done. Losses are a part of life. Don’t let mistakes or losses hold you down. Do what I do - use losses as a tool to motivate you to do better next time.
Opportunities in our world are endless, despite what many people might tell you. I am not the smartest or most talented person by any means. But I’ve been fairly successful because I just keep putting myself in position to succeed.
And I know you can too. But only if you want to.
JOSHUA LIU is currently a Biomedical Sciences student at York University. He is the founder of SMARTS: the Youth Science Foundation Canada's national youth science network, which connects over 300 young people and 200 schools today. He also currently sits on Shad International's Board of Directors. Joshua has spoken as a presenter, panelist, and keynote at numerous student conferences. He was named as one of Canada's "Top 20 Under 20" in 2005, and is a recipient of the TD Canada Trust Scholarship for Community Leadership.
For more articles like this one, check out Joshua's blog at MedHopeful.com