To some students, final exam week feels like a time in which any failings they have been experiencing over the course of the semester will be laid bare. The stress during this time of the year is palpable and felt in every residence hall and study lounge.
One of the tragedies of the human condition is that we frequently view our shortcomings as if we were looking at our reflection in a makeup mirror. Every blemish is amplified and every beauty mark is seen as a fault line. Maybe this is because we know our own failings better than anyone else could — by living with them day in and day out.
This is a warped perspective and it will not vanish automatically when you graduate. It will not disappear at commencement when you leave behind your GPA as a measure of personal achievement. It takes a conscious effort to avoid defaulting to this intensely focused view and construct meaningful change out of personal setbacks.
I’ve learned this lesson in the courses I teach. Every semester I tell my students that the product I put forth won’t be the best I will ever produce. It’s a realistic yet hopeful tone. I will always try new things. Some will succeed and others will spectacularly blow up in my face.
I used to nervously retreat from those setbacks and see them as personal failings to be avoided. Yet I’ve recently welcomed them as the opportunity to learn, grow and evolve the course material. I’m imperfect — the classroom experience will be, too.
Nevertheless, I will be a better professor once I acknowledge the imperfection and place it in proper context, that context being: students value professors that care about their success, are engaging and are willing to adapt as the weeks pass.
In that same spirit, your semesters at this university will be filled with immeasurable joy and some pain. It is what your reaction will be to that pain that will define what type of person you set out to be and not the pain itself. Never forget that.
Douglas Cantelmo is a Discover New York and Global Passport Professor.