Dealing With Failure (Or Not)

If you haven’t surmised from my Spacebook, Twitspace, or Instagram (sorry no cute name for this one) I fancy myself quite the runner. I’m far from the ranks of the elites. If they are the crust of the Earth, I am near the molten core in terms of proximity. The one thing I can do is pack on the distance. It’s been a slow build through the years, but it’s one of the things I can point to and say, “See, I’m a runner, look at the numbers.” Why do I need to point and say I am? Well, it probably has a lot to do with the fact that I still suffer from imposter syndrome when it comes to running, among other things. One thing that has helped curb this feeling is running marathons.

When I ran my first marathon in 2015, it was watershed moment and the culmination of my efforts as well as a solidification into the runner class. Having that medal around my neck made me feel powerful (while the rest of my body was crying out in agony). Once I ran that I knew I caught the bug. This would not be a one-time deal. The next year I decided to up my ambition and try for the Chicago Marathon. This was a far bigger event than the Indy one I had ran the year prior. It was a lottery system, so I was not guaranteed entry. Due to this I signed up for the Indy Monumental Marathon as a backup. As luck would have it I was admitted to Chicago. Great! But I had paid for Indy already! I mean, I ran one last year. What’s one more? They were a month a part, plenty of time for recovery (I also had a half between them, but that wasn’t another full, not a problem). Long story long, I ran them both, and myriad other races I had signed up for. I felt like a fully-fledged member of the running fraternity. Marathons were old-hat!

Fast-forward to this year. I wanted to up my game even more. I got an auto-entry into Chicago this time around because I finished the previous year, so I decided to sign up for that again because I enjoyed it so much. I also signed up for the NYC Marathon, with the same restrictions as Chicago, lottery system. I went drinking with a buddy of mine and he mentioned he would like to do a marathon someday. I still maintain that anyone can do a marathon (barring extreme physical impairments) all it takes it lots of time and miles. Maybe it was the alcohol that convinced him, or maybe it was my silver tongue (in no uncertain terms was it my silver tongue), but he decided he would run one this year. I couldn’t run Indy and NYC because they were only a day apart, but I said I would totally run Indy with him if I didn’t get into NYC. Sadly, I did not get admitted to NYC. So, I signed up to do Indy as well this year. Indy is next week. This is where this post is going to take a bit of a turn.

In the timeline of this story, Indy is next week, which also means that Chicago has already happened, or in my case, didn’t. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I went. I trekked up to the windy apple, fought terrible traffic and inadequate signage, grabbed my packet from McCormick Place, and even inconvenienced an old friend to let me stay with them. On top of that, I went to bed early, did not overeat the night before, got up early got all my gear and preparations done, and got to the race with hours to spare. Everything was moving like clockwork. When we started the race, I was feeling strong. I was going at a great clip. THIS WAS A SUCCESS STORY IN THE MAKING. Well, if I haven’t set you up for this to fall off a cliff, then here it goes, around mile 7 my stomach started to disagree that this was going to be a day to celebrate. It was just a little something at first. However, it started to grow. It felt nauseated. I was eyeing every trashcan along the throngs of cheering supporters. I stopped at a med tent and asked if they had anything for stomachs. Nope, just Tylenol. I decided to keep going. I play with pain. It was not subsiding. I stopped and tried to throw up, but couldn’t get anything to happen. Still, I had come all this way, had to keep going. Around mile 10 I hit another med tent, and thought maybe I was dehydrated or something, so they looked me over and gave me some Gatorade. I rested for a few minutes, and went back out. It only got worse. It felt like there was just a rock in my stomach – immovable. At mile 13, I stopped and got checked over by a doc. I asked what she thought I should do, “Well, you can keep going, but you will probably dehydrate yourself.” I could call it quits, be taken back to the starting line and chalk it up to bad luck. I could continue, and perhaps injure myself even more. This was Sophie’s Choice. I don’t mean to overstate the impact of this decision, but only to show the weight of it on me personally. I really wrestled with it. The decision had been tumbling around in the back of my head since mile 8. I ended up calling it.

I felt a crushing sense of shame while walking to the bus to take me back. The first text I sent about it was incredibly hard to press send on. If any of you know me personally, I’m not really a crier. I have nothing against it. I don’t think it’s emasculating, and I think it’s a pretty healthy thing for humans to do if they feel the need. Even so, I rarely cry. Well, I was on that bus choking back tears. I can blame it on any number of things, but the truth is, I didn’t finish. I carry that around with me. In the grand scheme of everything, it is the most trivial problem to have, but it still sits with me. It doesn’t help, that I’ve had to tell the story of this to countless relatives and others who have asked about it (just got asked about it yesterday as of this post). I don’t fault them at all either, they are taking an interest in what I do. How nice of them! I want to say that my friends, family, and loved ones were and have been just the most supportive about this, and for that I am incredibly grateful.

So, I have this glaring failure just following me around. How do I come to terms with it? I certainly have no idea. If I had misled you, I apologize, I tried to give it away in the title. I can tell you how I’ve dealt with failure in the past though. I’ve used it as a motivator to ensure a different outcome in the future. That’s where I’m at. I have Indy in a week. I have to complete it. I’m nervous. I’m extraordinarily nervous. I have a lot riding on this, mentally. I’ve run a half marathon between Chicago and now, and my stomach caused no issues. These are good signs. I am treating this as a comeback. All I can say, wish me and my cohorts luck next week. I will report back with how it went.

I’ve been in the quote mood, so I will depart this post with the mantra I kept repeating when I ran my first marathon.

“The best way out is always through.”
― Robert Frost

P.S. I am not a psychiatrist and do not advocate dealing with any issues you may have in this manner. Truth be told, this is probably a really bad way to go about it.

On Failure, Rejection, and Redemption (A Personal Tale)

The year is 2006 and a starry-eyed freshman has just moved to college. Everything is fantastic. He’s got a girlfriend, he is rooming with his best friend from high school, and he is shooting for the stars by majoring in computer engineering. Guess happens. REALITY HAPPENS. I hate it when reality happens. That plucky little guy and his girlfriend broke up, there was tension building between him and his roommate, and worst of all for the first time in his life school was not coming to him with the greatest of ease. I bet you couldn’t see through my clever ruse, but that boy was/is me. Perhaps the worst part of that story is that it isn’t the worst part of the story.

I entered Purdue University in the undergraduate studies program (read undecided) even though I was decided. I had a GPA just below the minimum required so they couldn’t take me into the engineering program right out of high school. Whatever, I love a challenge. The USP allowed me to take all the engineering and math classes that a first-year would take so there was no problem. The plan was that I would do well then I would CODO (transfer) into the ECE (Electrical and Computer Engineering) school. I had never been a math person. I took all AP classes except math. Why? WAY back in 4th grade they made us take a test. If we scored well we were placed on the fast track, if not we were put on normal track. This followed me all the way through to high school and thus not really prepared for the onslaught of math that engineering, especially electrical or computer, needs.

So, I am taking MA 161 which is Calc 1 for engineers and math majors (probably a few others thrown in, too). This is all stuff I have never seen and I struggled with it. I struggled badly. I ended up failing the class. This is the first time, EVER, I had failed a class. It felt just terrible, and yet it was just the tip of the very large iceberg. I took the class again in the following semester with the same results. Was I just too stupid for this kind of stuff? This is Calc 1 and I still have so much more to go. The one good or bad quality, depending on how it’s applied, I have is bullheadedness. It was a puzzle I needed to solve. Why was I not doing well? I ended up getting tutoring over spring break, which helped for when I took it in the summer. I ended up getting a B+ in the summer (even though pluses didn’t count then in terms of GPA). I even got a 100% on one of my exams. OK, it wasn’t because I was stupid. I think I’ve established that. It was how I approached work. This is actually something that plagues me all the way until the end of my story.

I’m not a lazy person, not at all; I just don’t like doing stuff that doesn’t grab me right away. For example, when I had a video project I would edit for hours and hours without interruption often times not finishing up until 4 AM. This being one example, if I was passionate about the work, then I would keep at it. It’s how I have almost all my IT knowledge. It was passion for understanding this magic box and making it work to my specifications. Although, when something didn’t hold my attention it was like trying to move a Snorlax without the whistle (remember Pokemon, guys?). This was a major character flaw. Engineering requires extreme diligence and will not take kindly to those who are not disciplined.

My generation, whatever clever name they are calling it these days, is the first generation with a real instant gratification complex. I mean one that really permeates through the whole of the masses. This of course only refers to the American middle-class side of things, as we have had the money and the means to have this culture based on instant gratification. Think about what we (read I) had growing up. Food was instantaneous. Fast food just became food. You had ready to eat, hot food minutes after you ordered. No other time in human history has that sort of thing been possible. Think about our communication. I didn’t have internet my whole life, I’m not that young, but I had access as early as 4th grade, even if it was not at home. I had an email address at age nine.* I was sending world wide communications that would be answered in a day instead of two weeks. As I mentioned we were middle-class. Upper middle-class if we want to be technical (and I do). This meant that while I didn’t get everything I wanted, I got a fair amount. I didn’t have to save much. I didn’t have to wait for a long time for something. A period of months was a long time for me, almost unbearable. This sort of wanting everything without sacrifice made a big appearance during the recent housing crisis. It nearly tanked the world economy and it was because people wanted more than they could afford. Buying without the prerequisite of saving. To tie it back into my personal narrative, it is ingrained in our culture, and it’s not a good thing. It’s a scourge that has set us back.

So, the summer after my freshman year was an amazing success (I should write more about this one day because it really was a transformative experience in my life). I had gotten two A’s and one B(+). I had conquered all my demons and everything was gravy. Hah! If only. Enter Fall 2007. I am now living with my best dude friend, Aaron Faulstich. It was great! That was until a girl played into the mix. I won’t regale you with the story (because it’s none ya business!), but either way I ended up with my second major girlfriend of college. So, knowing what you now know about me, spend time with a pretty girl who is into you, or do lots of math. What do you think won out most of the time? So, I didn’t do as well as I had hoped, BUT I did post some decent grades. I successfully CODO’d into the ECE program at one of the best engineering schools in the country. I was elated. Seriously, I still have the acceptance letter. It was a big deal for me. The problem is that engineering doesn’t get easier as time goes on, no quite the opposite actually. I still had a girlfriend and school just stepped up it’s game. Guess who didn’t? So, I didn’t do great that following semester. My girlfriend broke up with me somewhere in between the semester, which didn’t help. I failed some classes. SOME classes now. Jesus. This is becoming regular now? I took summer school following the semester to retake linear circuits 1 and calc 3. I passed calc 3. I passed them both, but not enough in circuits to warrant me not taking the class again (you need a C or higher).

Aaron graduated the semester before (he is older than I am) and moved to Portland (Oregon). I am now living alone in an apartment. I am taking some classes that interest me (as well as more math – kids engineering is tons of math, don’t let anyone convince you otherwise), but something happens. Something I still can’t describe. I have another girlfriend, but we never do much and that ends fairly quickly. That isn’t the problem. The problem is I can’t seem to get myself to do anything. I mean like get out of bed. I manage to contract mono during this time, too, which, if you know the symptoms, makes you very tired. This is not the brightest moment in Matt Gyure’s life. The semester passes by quickly and I get a letter telling me I am on probation. I did terrible. Really terrible. This was a new wave of despair for me. How in the world did I go so far off the rails? I was going to become one of those guys I used to make jokes about. Fail out of college. Really?

Are you depressed enough, yet?  Well, hold onto your butts, because we are going to plunge a little deeper. Next semester is worse. I don’t leave my apartment for days and when I do it’s not to go to class. This is inexplicable to me. I exhibited the signs of depression, but, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t feel depressed. I was living the hermit life though; coming out for food and little else. As the semester drew to a close I feel it like a noose tightening around my neck. I was about to be kicked out of school. Even typing that now is tough. I try a 9th inning rally (sports metaphors are an underutilized literary device in depressing accounts), but it’s too little too late.

I try to ignore it. I get the letter from Purdue and a wave of cold shot down my spine. I put it on my desk and I can’t open it for weeks. It takes that long to muster up the confidence to even open the thing, even though I know what’s lurking beneath the flaps (stop snickering, this is no time for double entendre, I’m bearing my soul here). As I open the thing and read the letter on how I am not to continue the following semester. My stomach fell into my butt. The worlds made it feel permanent. There was no avoiding this. I had failed out of college. What the hell am I going to do? There was never a contingency plan. I never needed one. It took me a couple more weeks to tell my parents, who, to their credit, didn’t freak out.

I have been beating myself up pretty bad during this story (kind of the point, honesty), but I did/do have one good quality that had/has served me well. Instead of giving up and rationalizing that I was not able to do this, that I wasn’t “cut out” to be an engineer, I vowed that I would. This was something I wanted more than anything else. Now the question was, how am I going to do it? I just got booted from school. This begins my journey (albeit a bumpy one) of redemption.

This probably goes without saying, but this was not my finest hour. I was really beside myself. Much of the time I was trying to ignore it even happened. Yes, running away from your problems always fixes them. The situation with school was I was going to have to sit out a semester before re-applying to Purdue. This proved problematic. I was afraid if I weren’t in school I would start forgetting information and when I did get back to school I would not be able to remember what I had been taught. The other problem was that I needed to remain a student to be on my parents insurance. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, and I have not really needed it for anything major, but knowing what had happened I would probably have broken all my bones the day after the insurance expired. I didn’t do much that summer; I was, for all intents and purposes, in shock. Around the corner August was peaking it’s head out and I hadn’t come up with a plan. I looked around to school and found the only one that would take me. Ivy Tech.

All the people I had no respect for, the people I looked down on, this was the school they ended up at. Now, I was there. That classes I was enrolled it wouldn’t count either. I was too far along in my curriculum for the classes they offered. That whole semester I spent driving to Purdue to visit my girlfriend. It also was full of lies I would tell people to avoid having them find out about my darker past. It made me feel less than dirt and unintelligent. I told so many different people so many different things that I don’t even remember what I was “doing” at the time. I am pretty decent at lying to people, too, which didn’t help (Thank my overly strict parents for the development of that skill).

That break, having accomplished nothing, but for a series of potentially interesting side-lives I had created, it was time to re-apply to Purdue. I applied to Purdue Calumet and Purdue West Lafayette. I was trying for West Lafayette to try to slip right back into the groove. After several (read: way to many) calls between the universities and myself, I was back into WL. I was ecstatic, after a days long battle with my parents to let me go back down there. It was settled. Come January I would be going and living in Hawkins Hall.

I had done a little research on keeping organized and staying focused, went to some organizational classes even. I had fooled myself into thinking this was enough. It takes a fundamental shift in thinking to really apply all those principles and this was something that I had not done. I made some great friends (still my friends now) that semester and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The thing I would tweak was my work ethic. I had spent far too much time with my new friends and girlfriend and not enough time hitting the books.

I knew I didn’t do well, and when I got my grades my grades in the mail I actually took that envelope and put it under a stack of papers. It would sit there for over a month. When I did finally find the testicular fortitude to open it my suspicions were confirmed. One semester and I was gone again, this time for a year, minimum. Ok, what are we now on, Plan C? My options were running out. My dreams seemed out of reach at this point. After frantically trying to figure out what to do now, I landed on a small university several people in my family attended. Trine University.

The fact that Trine University admitted me at all is a surprise to me, especially with my track record. They did not, however, admit me to the Engineering program. I was in something called informatics. Think IT with a little different twist. This caused me to question if I wanted to do engineering. It was giving me all this grief and IT stuff came easy to me. I knew it and was/am extremely good at it.  I was putting myself through hell when I could end up with a high paying job, probably comparable to an engineering job pay-wise, with relative ease. I still was going to try to admit myself to the engineering program there, but surprise, surprise I didn’t have the grades. It was decided for me that I would continue on in informatics. This whole situation was not helped by my trouble I was having with my girlfriend at the time.

This actually caused some physiological changes for me. Every dream I had was a nightmare. There was major cognitive dissonance going on and my body would not sit until it had been resolved. About the middle of my second semester at Trine I realized that this informatics things, this settling thing, was not going to work. It was from that point that I turned my attention back to engineering, back to Purdue.

That whole year I was trying to take a step back and trying to evaluate myself from an impersonal standpoint, a more objective standpoint. I realized I was being childish. I made some hard realizations about myself and about the world at large.

Life is not fair, and nor should it be. This is a cold place and the only way we have been able to tame it is hard work. Our ancestors and their ancestors busted their ass to make what we have today. Everyone has dreams and it is my belief that anything is attainable. The one barrier is hard work. One of my favorite quotes sums it up better than I can:

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”

― Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

The one technique I learned is that being an adult, a true transformation from adolescence to adulthood, is that there are things that need doing and despite every reason you can come up with or excuse you can give, you have to just do it. Not everything in life is fun; it’s about balance. Sacrifice is the name of the game. Can you do the work now to have the fun later? The universe acts in a way that brings everything to equilibrium, a universal karma if you will. If you avoid doing something that needs to be done, it will catch up with you later in some way. In that same way, making sacrifices now will result in a more pleasurable tomorrow. Back to my point from earlier, it’s not instant either. It takes time, and real effort.

This brings me to where I am today. I am, for the first time in much too long, doing well in school, in engineering at Purdue Calumet. I am on back to where I need to be and I have a set plan. I have worked hard and have not been able to do many of the things I would have liked to ensure my success in school. I have had to radically change my views on work and time management. Honestly, there is a lot to be said for the phrase, just do it. All the motivational books in the work won’t change that hard and fast truth. It needs doing, so just do it.

In total, my screw-ups are costing me two-years. Two-years that are lost and I’m not getting them back. The one good thing is that I have learned from those mistakes, many don’t. I don’t think this story will inspire anyone, or cause anyone to avoid the mistakes I made, but it is good to have it all out there. My official graduation date is Fall 2013 and that is not changing. You know what though. I am going to be graduating with the degree I want. I didn’t take the easy way out and I didn’t give up. When I actually do get that diploma I know all this headache, heartache, and several stomachaches will have all been worth it. Failure is inevitable. How you deal with it is the important part.

Honestly, thanks so much to my parents who have and are putting up with me through all this. I know many, many others would not and I can’t thank them enough for letting me work through my breakdowns, changes, realizations, and adolescence. I can’t possibly make it up to them, but I am going to try for the rest of my life.

*This is a perfect example of what I am talking about. I was thinking about how old a 4th grader is and instead of doing the simple calculation I tried to look it up online and then stopped myself. We have seemingly infinite knowledge at our fingertips so engaging the brain is something we don’t have to do anymore, to our detriment.