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Former Dean Dr. Erik Shane says: “Use your Failures as Fuel"

How many times have you found yourself sitting there, feeling dread about the homework you know is due tomorrow–or the mountain of homework left undone over the past few weeks that has been quietly dragging you down?

How many times have you spent the last three weeks of a marking period begging your teachers for make-up work or extra credit?

And finally, aren’t you tired of all the stress you feel waiting for your mom or dad to see your grades?

Don’t beat yourself up too much…and cut it out! After all, everything connected to your responses above—-has been your fault.

I spent much of my eighth, ninth, and tenth grade years with D’s and F’s on my report card. In fact, after middle school, I was sent to Valley Forge Military Academy, an event that leaves me hopeful that I have earned enough street credit for you to read on.

Study hall was a mandatory part of my life in military school. After dinner, we were required to return to our rooms and remain in our seats at our desks from 7:30 p.m. to 9:40 p.m. The school even had teachers patrolling the dormitory hallways to try to catch us misbehaving, sleeping, or not studying. If we were caught out of our chairs, making noise, or wasting time, we were sent outside to march–even if it was snowing or 20 degrees below zero. And yet, somehow, I managed to beat the system. During quite a few study halls, I would climb out of my window to meet the pizza delivery guy. But really, most of the time, I would just sit at my desk and do anything but study for the duration of those study halls. I felt so smart fooling all those people night after night.

But all that foolishness came with a price: because I was on the “Deficiency List,” I was not permitted to leave campus. Each Saturday and Sunday, while all my friends were able to go to town, watch movies, play video games, and kiss girls, I was sitting in the “Fish Tank,” a place where bad students were sent to study for five hours each weekend day.

What made that whole thing so ironic was that even in the “Fish Tank,” I would waste my time looking busy–and doing very little.

Toward the end of my sophomore year at Valley Forge, I started to get the feeling that I might not be invited back for my junior year. Around that time, one of my commanding officers (and my econ teacher), Colonel Brown, pulled me aside. As I took my seat in front of his desk, he began listing all my failures. He even went back into my file and started reading stuff that had happened before I had even arrived at military school. It felt very Catcher in the Rye. I remember sitting there–fuming–as he cataloged every stupid thing I had ever done in school. When he finally reached the end of that 40-minute long list, he looked up and asked me (in the plainest way) whether I had anything to say for myself. Of course, I had nothing to offer.

When I failed to come up with an answer to that question, he became furious. After a moment of awkward silence, Colonel Brown looked up at me from across his desk–his glasses and medals reflecting that fluorescent green hue we were all so used to seeing in school–and asked me if I was getting any sleep at night. In that moment, I thought it was such a strange question, but as he continued, he started saying things that really tapped into what I had been experiencing in my life. I was, in fact, not sleeping so well. The reason: I was silently torturing myself with worry. Outwardly, I acted like school didn’t matter to me–but that was a lie–because it did. As I sat there listening to that terrifying, wonderful, brilliant man–who I had so much respect for–it occurred to me that what he was saying was quite real. He suggested that my approach to the problem was making it worse–and that the more I ran from it, the worse, louder, and more destructive the result would be.

And then, Colonel Brown shared something with me in that meeting that has never left me. He bluntly told me that everything that had been happening was my fault. He also told me that I could change everything in a matter of days–even by the end of that same week–and that meeting was taking place on a Wednesday!

Hearing that I should be utilizing my failures as fuel was a powerful moment for me. Before that day, I was allowing (really, inviting) my failures to pile up on top of me like rocks. In fact, I had been wearing my poor performance as a kind of badge or trophy; after all, I had subconsciously been using my success at failing as a kind of fuel as well–and that negative energy was impacting my reputation and the way others were treating me. Basically, I was failing and failing and failing–and the people around me began to believe that I could not recover. So I did the ONE THING I had been refusing to do: study.

At first, I thought doing all that work would suck–but it did not. In fact, it was so unbelievably easy to change what had been happening that I felt like an idiot for not having fixed the problem sooner. I later became frustrated when I only made Second Honors during the first marking period of my junior year. But my motivation was galvanized to a new level after the second marking period–when I found myself frustrated that I again hadn’t made First Honors! From the moment I started attacking my school work after that conversation with Colonel Brown, my failures had begun to redefine themselves–as did my own personal standard for success. I had shifted my sights toward wanting MORE, and ultimately, arrived at this point in which not earning First Honors was the failure–when just months prior, not getting kicked out had been my standard. Do you see it?!

With those realizations in place, I did fix the problem–IN ONE DAY!!! All it took was for me to sit down and force myself to stay in my seat. Two hours per day, five days per week, Sunday through Thursday–I sat at my desk, and I did what I needed to. Of course, you already know by the way I’m writing this that, by the third marking period, I finally earned my spot on that First Honors list!

Kids are judged by how they do in school, but like adults, kids also frequently judge themselves unhealthily or harshly.  The reality was that I was tired of all the negative feedback, and I was tired of being “that kid.” When it became clear to me that each failure could be overcome simply by attacking it–instead of running from it–my entire life changed for the better.

If you want to talk about this, reach out. I love this stuff–and I love showing others how to get out of their own way–just like I did. 🙂