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Starting from zero

| Thursday, October 29, 2015

I started my junior year prepared. On the first night of the semester, my roommates and I opened a huge bottle of diet Coke celebrating the fact that we were finally not starting from zero. Indeed, with six jobs, two majors, 19 academic credits, many close friends and a sense of familiarity, I firmly believed this year would be the time for me to shine, to excel, to change the world. I was so ready to take my first step on this amazing journey.

I never expected my first fall would occur in the domain most familiar to me: writing. As a columnist for The Observer and a writing tutor, I always consider writing as my strength. Two weeks into the semester, I received my first grade for an essay assignment. I was a little bit surprised when the professor called me into his office and kindly reminded me that my writing was “problematic.” One week after that unfortunate incident, I got another paper back with the professor suggesting I should consider rewriting the essay because I did not closely follow the requirements listed on the prompt. I was shaken and alarmed. As a result, as I started my third essay assignment, I chose the easiest topic — comparing the theories of Hobbes and Locke — and gave up the other four more interesting but riskier ones. I carefully examined my understanding of the two philosophers, avoided all the nuances in their respective theory, made sure that the logic was consistent and checked my spelling three times. I remember walking into the sun after turning in the paper and thinking to myself: You did everything you possibly could do. Things would change this time. Two weeks after, I got it back. I saw my professor’s comments on the margin: You have a good understanding of the two theories, but your thesis is too conservative. You explain the two theories quite well, but you are not arguing for anything. Next time, take some risks and try to work on a more challenging thesis. Jacqueline Novogratz, one of the most recognizable figures in international development, once said, “They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I took mine and fell flat on my face.” Six weeks into the semester, I had already taken a few courageous steps, but I fell on each and every one of them. I failed at every attempt to live up to my own expectations.

Profoundly disappointed with myself, I talked with my mom, complaining that my constant efforts only resulted in constant failures. I was not receiving satisfactory grades. I was having a writing crisis. I was not getting enough sleep, because I simply did not have the time for it. “It should not be like this,” I concluded with frustrating tears, “I am already a junior, for heaven’s sake. I should already have my life together!” Out of nowhere, my mom said, “That’s too bad. I can see that you lost your humbleness.” “What do you mean? I am humbled, like, every single day.” “No, you are simply sad and disappointed. You are not humbled.”

Before I could argue back, my mom, like many Chinese parents, started to repeat the important role of humbleness in ancient Chinese culture and warned me against the serious dangers of losing it. I shut up, knowing she would probably go on for another hour up in the metaphysical clouds without offering any tangible solution to my situation. In the end, however, my mother did offer a solution: “This might sound weird, but I hope somebody can destroy something for you, and then you will understand.”

Much confused and a bit terrified, I directly went to the Grotto after the talk. I sat on the bench for a long time, hoping that destruction, no matter in what form, would never come.

And of course, it came.

It was 2 a.m. and I was still working on a paper in the library. It was the seventh attempt of the semester to regain my confidence in writing. I started two weeks before and had already done much research and talked with my TA about it. Though she suggested I change my thesis into a more challenging one, I chose to stick with the original draft. Starting from zero sounded like a strategy too risky for me, and by the way, I never wanted to lose anything I had, especially given that I have already lost too much in the last six weeks. As I reached the conclusion part of my eight-page paper, I reminded myself once again that I needed to include every single necessary element of “good academic writing”: a summary of my argument, counterargument, the “so-what movement” and … pzzz. The words disappeared. The music stopped. I saw my own face on the screen: a shocked, terrified and hopeless one. My computer had crashed.

Five seconds later, I recovered from the shock and finally figured out what just happened. My first reaction was frantically trying to reopen my computer. I connected it to the power source. Didn’t work. I kept pressing the power button for more than two minutes. Didn’t work. I even talked to it, begging it to come alive again. Didn’t work. Everything was gone, just like that. I packed all my things and walked out of the library, numb with grief and confusion.

It is funny. I had been extremely afraid of destruction ever since my mom mentioned it, yet while walking across God Quad with all my essays and problem sets gone, I was calmer than ever. Since I could not work on the essay, check if my professor had updated our newest grade for problem set five or open the calendar to see my must-do list for the next day, I simply wandered around campus without a plan. This undesirable accident had forced me to start from zero again, and it felt like freshman year.

As an international student, I had to learn every single thing when I first came here. I had to learn what theology is. I had to learn what a counterargument was. I had to learn about American popular TV shows. I had to learn about when to laugh and when not. I had to learn about how to use a knife and fork. I was never afraid to ask for help, because I knew I was ignorant. Failure was the norm of my life. When I failed, I just learned how to stand up. The habit of learning made everything so easy to accept. Nothing was ever dreadful. Then it suddenly occurred to me that despite the constant failures, the grinding process of learning everything, the sense of strangeness I had whenever I walked on campus, I was very happy every day as a freshman. It came from the courage to start from zero and the acceptance I had to learn everything on the journey. All of a sudden, I realized I had not enjoyed the happiness of being humble for a long time. The crash of my computer 20 minutes ago, a destruction which my mom had long been hoping would occur, forced me to start anew and empowered me to once again be humble.

Just give up the fight tonight and start everything from zero tomorrow. It is not that dreadful, I told myself.

The next morning, I successfully opened my computer. Everything came back. The essay assignment I was working on the night before was still there: eight pages, single space, with a thesis not so challenging but easy to defend.

I smiled and dragged it to the trash box. Empty trash.

I was finally humble enough to start from zero again.

It felt so good.


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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