On Failure

If I ranked how I’ve spent my time this term, I’m almost positive that my first place activity would not be preparing for finals or writing my thesis. In fact, I’m certain it would be rowing.

It is a pretty stupid way for me to be occupying myself. In two months, I’ll be back in the U.S., and in all likelihood I’ll never sit in an eight ever again. Those six a.m. practices and evening ergs have, no doubt, eaten up precious hours that I could have spent drinking, sleeping, or trying to advance myself professionally in the tooth-and-nail rat-race of academia. And, as it occurred to me while I sat on the starting line Wednesday through Saturday of last week—feeling queasy about the six minutes of hell I was about to put myself through—there are a lot less painful forms of recreation.

More than anything, though, spending so much time rowing make no sense because I am so bad at it. Last year saw a wave of retirements from Worcester’s first boat, and, as a member of the second boat farm-team, that meant this year I and my teammates had to step up. In Torpids, we spent four days hanging on for dear life. Day one, we improbably managed to hold off the boat behind; the next day, they plowed through us two-thirds of the way down the course. In Summer Eights, we managed one epic “row over”—that is to say, we didn’t get bumped—and then got pushed out of Division I on the last day.

There are, I’ll admit, good reasons for why I like rowing, irrespective of my lack of rowing prowess. Rowing has given me an amazing window into Oxford one segment of undergraduate life. Personally, rowing has helped me discover that I actually can add muscle mass—something that cross country running, with its mantra of “may the scrawniest man win”, never gave me a chance to do. And, of course, my occasional rage at our underperformance aside, I love the eight men with whom I row. It’s been a long time since I had a close group of male friends, and I think this may be the best I’ll have it for a long time. And, at the very least, there are few things more beautiful than the Isis on a foggy morning.

All these are good reasons to take the words of Baron Coubertin’s, the founder of the Olympics, to heart: “It’s not winning but taking part.” The thing is, though, is that I can’t stand that mentality. I love winning. I am an intensely competitive person, and, as a general rule, when I do things, I want to be good at them. Which, I admit, makes my love of rowing all the more inexplicable. There are, at the end of the day, all sorts of things I could be doing, things that are not only “important” for my own personal trajectory or in the cosmic sense, and which I’m actually good at.

In the end, though, I have to concede that the value of rowing to me rests precisely in failure. When your academic pedigree includes Princeton and Oxford, you’ve reached a point where it’s difficult to parse out when an accomplishment belongs to you, or belongs to the structures and institutions that have given you a massive leg-up in life. When I received positive responses from grad schools last term, it was all a little ho-hum: while I had doubts about the outcome, others apparently did not, which made the entire thing not so much an accomplishment as fait accompli. As I’ve learned, things don’t mean much unless there was a genuine chance of failure.

If I were actually good at rowing, I guess, I wouldn’t like it so much. So, as I reflect with great nostalgia on a rowing career that has seen me sit in two Worcester First that have moved downwards on the river, I am trying to convince myself to celebrate the value of being bad at something. It’s not just that we all deserve to be humbled occasionally. It’s also that, when we know we have no intrinsic advantage, meritocracy kicks in, and it’s a liberating feeling.

Which is precisely why I am now looking forward to Oriel Regatta, two weeks from now, for one last chance at success.

2 thoughts on “On Failure

  1. Baron Coubertin founded the Olympics? I’m sorry, but a pansy who believes in “the experience” over victory would have been crushed to pieces in ancient Olympia. If you didn’t win first place, then no one cared, and it often wasn’t recorded. No victory parade for you back in the polis. However, I will concede that the MODERN Olympics foster teamwork, friendship, good will, and all that nice stuff. 🙂

    1. Oh wow, that was a pretty shameful mistake on my part. My apologies to you and all the classicists of the world.

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