Here’s a story we all hear:
In high school, I had all A’s. But during my freshman year at Stanford, I actually failed a test for the first time and got my first B. At first I thought I was a failure! But then, in the end I realized it was okay, and yada yada yada etc.
BORING, as I like to say. My first week at NSO I heard this story so many times I could write you the storyboard, usually concluding in some midnight soul-searching on Main Quad, staring up into the fractured abyss of MemChu and seeing the universe for what it is—messy and flawed, full of failure and triumph.
But that’s not my story, of course. I wasn’t like the others. Academics for me were a different matter altogether. Hell, I was riding straight out of Boise, Idaho like a champion. As I rolled up to Soto in my mom’s blue Prius listening to St. Elmo’s Fire, I knew something special was going down. Stanford would never be the same.
Fall quarter—killed it. Close enough at least. All was well. Winter quarter I loaded up. You never get stronger if you don’t lift, after all. Didn’t Michael Jordan say that? Maybe? I decided to take all STEM classes. Math, stats, physics, engineering. Let’s DO this!! I remember shouting as I clicked enroll on Coursework. Here we GOOOOOO.
Here is a tip no one will tell you that, at least in my opinion, works flawlessly for academic self-confidence. When receiving a test grade, instead of a percentage, imagine a dollar sign. Then imagine how you’d feel receiving that sum of money. 87% on the Math 53 final becomes $87. Amazing! What a steal! That’s a double cappuccino in Palo Alto!
The point is, free money is always amazing. For every point I scraped off on those tests, I felt a victory somewhere. 57% on my Stats midterm became $57. Amazing! Perfect! There was room for improvement, of course, but still—I’ll take $57 any day of the week.
Clearly, as you can see, I proved immune to academic disappointment. Kind of. Well, not really. To be honest, when I saw 57%, I made this weird little noise that sounded like swallowing a grape. I checked again. I willed the digits to switch. I considered emailing the TAs. There’d been a mistake, of course. They’d meant to say 85. Or 95. Woohoo! Maybe I’d actually aced it and this was a funny little joke. A clever, “surprise, be the TA next year” kind of initiation. I could chum it off with them, pass off my sweat as a sprinkler bike-through-- good one guys!
But I knew somewhere that was that. Unlike the AP Physics exam, where the point is to swim in an abyss of confusion, this midterm was designed to be straightforward and computable. No sweeping curves. A fair, mathematical test of knowledge. The average is usually a B+, the prof had said. It’s a comprehensive, honest test.
It was also a test I’d failed by a decent margin. What was the cutoff for an F again? 60? These were parameters I’d never considered before. What was even below a 60? Mordor?? All my optimism and confidence fractured in that gut-splitting moment of F. For a second, I thought I was going to cry—okay, fine, I teared up-- which was so silly-- there were tourists walking by!-- and there was no stupid excuse I could summon for a 57% or for my tears.
There’s a happy ending to this story: I didn’t fail the class. Walking out of that final knowing I’d passed felt like headlining a parade. Biking back to the dorm with my best friend and eating pineapple cake with our RFs felt like a celebration, a miracle, a blessing. My freshmen year soldiered on, full of adventures and sand and stars. Everything was beautiful, and very few things hurt.
But if I could tell you any story from freshmen year, I’d tell you about the time I failed that test. It turns out the reason upperclassmen tell this story over and over is because it has a point. There really is something we’re trying (desperately) to get across. Originally, I completely misinterpreted the whole matter, because I thought the point of the First B story was that it’s okay to fail.
That’s not the point. Okay, first of all, a B is not a failure. A B IS A GREAT GRADE. I think you could have Obama yelling that off Hoover Tower and Stanford kids would still tear up over an A-, but let’s be honest: a B is a really, really good grade. Part of graduating high school/becoming a mature student is coming to terms with the spectrum of success and how you define it. There is no perfect GPA. You do what you can do, and it works out in the end. It really does.
I think that’s the point of the First B story. You have to find a way to be proud of what you do. This is so important. This is so, so important! You will always find a way to disappoint yourself. That’s not necessarily terrible. That’s part of how you got here. That’s part of the drive that kept you awake at 2 am, finishing that paper; that’s part of the determination which kept you at the gym, the computer, the library, the lab until it was perfect, better than perfect: up to your standards. But that drive to do better, to do bigger, will mean every now and then, you will decide where you are isn’t good or big enough. You will decide that you have failed.
Find a balance. Find a way to push harder. But perhaps more importantly, find a way to be proud. You are killing it. You are going to do great. Don’t get deluded otherwise. Would you rather have $0 or $57 is the real question. I would rather have $100, but for now, I’ll take $57 and aim for more next time. That pineapple cake is going to taste amazing either way.
CLASS OF 2019