On being ... a student
By Ingrid Sapona
Last week I was thinking about the fact that this is the first year I didn’t feel that old “back to school” pang that used to kick in just before Labour Day. (You know, that feeling that was a strange combination of anxiety and excitement.) I know it sounds odd that I even remember that pang (given that I’ve not been to school in September since 1984), much less that I miss it – but I do. Not feeling it made me feel old.
I chalked up the fact that I didn’t feel the pang to a combination of things. It could have been the fact that our summer was so soggy it barely seemed started, so it couldn’t be over (which is always the case when school started). It could also have been the fact that I didn’t see or hear any back to school sale ads. (I guess Staples’ right to the Andy Williams version of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” has run out.) Or maybe it’s that I no longer live across the street from an elementary school.
Anyway, a few days after lamenting that I no longer feel like a student (for better or worse), a couple incidents reminded me of an old Buddhist proverb about learning. The first incident had to do with something I read. A friend recently gave me a book entitled, “The Secret of Successful Failing”*. (I know, I could read all sorts of things into what a friend giving me a book about dealing with failure says, but I’ll leave that for a future column!)
From the title, I figured the book would be about learning from your mistakes. Hardly a new idea, I know, but believing there’s no harm in being reminded of good advice, I started reading. I plowed through the first chapter quickly, not finding anything new or surprising. But I kept reading – and I’m glad I did. Fairly early in Chapter Two I read something that struck a chord: failure … is not a judgment that proves our inadequacy.
I re-read it a number of times and thought about it for a long while before I realized that I’ve pretty much always emotionally connected failure and inadequacy, but I never really saw the judgment aspect. Indeed, though I’ve always taken to heart the idea that there’s lots to be learned from failure, I’ve never been able to see failure as simply something you learn from. (The author puts it quite plainly, saying that failure is just feedback.)
Now, having read and understood her point, I realize the reason I’ve probably not learned quite as much as I could have from past failures is because I’ve always had failure served with a heaping portion of judgment of inadequacy. To maximize the lesson from failure, clearly I’ll have to learn to disconnect it from my feelings of inadequacy. Anyway, this column isn’t about failure (honestly) – it’s about the fact that that author’s putting it in those words helped me see things in a way I hadn’t before and helped me learn.
The other incident relates to something my nutritionist said – in passing – in a voice mail. A number of years ago I went to her to help me lose some weight. I still see her quarterly because I’m keen to not re-gain. I was fairly indulgent this summer and I put on a couple pounds and so I promised myself that come Labour Day I’d better begin dieting. I had an appointment coming up in mid-September, but I decided to move it back a few weeks. (Lest her scale prove too revealing of my recent indulgences.)
So, I left her a message seeking to reschedule on a particular date a few weeks later. She then left me a voice mail saying the day I chose wasn’t good because she doesn’t see clients who are “on maintenance” that day of the week. I was struck by her use of the word “maintenance”. I remembered she had used that word before, but I never thought about what it means in terms of me.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that’s precisely what my continuing to see her is about: it’s about maintaining the weight I want to be at – it’s not about still being “on a diet”, which is how I had always seen it. Looking at it this new way isn’t just a refreshing twist on words, it’s a completely different motivation. Not a bad revelation from a voice mail!
Anyway, as for why I hadn’t before viewed watching what I eat as maintenance, or why I hadn’t before realized that failure doesn’t equal inadequacy, well, I think the answer lies in the proverb I referred to earlier. It goes something like this: when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I guess I was simply ready to learn these things now…
Oh, there’s one other wonderful thing these two incidents reminded me about: just because you’re not going back to school doesn’t mean you can’t be a student – you just have to be open to letting the teachers appear!
© 2008 Ingrid Sapona
*”The Secret of Successful Failing”, by Gina Mollicone-Long