Opinion | The Canon

The most successful mistake

I made a mistake, and I felt guilty for what happened, but I have decided to let myself off the hook for it. There’s definitely some stumbling involved, but I suppose that comes with the process of becoming a 26-year-old divorcée. Most would say that my short marriage was an unsuccessful mistake that I should wish to take back—but it was the best mistake I’ve made (so far) in my life, and if I could go back in time, I would do it all over again. Mistakes are useful—they have a purpose. They teach us things, like fire is hot and sticking your tongue to a frozen pole is a bad idea. Getting married taught me that with some things, I won’t know that I don’t want them until I have them. My mistake also taught me that I’ll always have to finish what I started. And, because of this, I see my forthcoming divorce not as a regret, but as a success.

There isn’t One Definition of Success—it is as variable as the goals that each of us individually have, and it can be measured only by the individual in question. For some of us, success may be getting an A in an advanced German course; for another, it might be getting an internship on Wall Street. For myself, success is getting out of a relationship with my soul intact, learning from it, and continuing to plow my way through the cobwebs that make up Columbia. Because I also want to be successful in the traditional academic sense—in fact, I want to be Number One. The best. It comes with the territory of being a student at a competitive school like Columbia. Yet, no matter how good I am, there is always going to be someone better than me—and you, for that matter. Say you got an A in German; someone else got an A+, if not here, then at another university of equal caliber. But say we do manage to become Number One out of everyone—someone else is going to come along to replace us, whether in one year or 12, and do it better. There will always be a better Michael Phelps, a better Albert Einstein, and a better Number One. So what are we to do? Just give up and accept mediocrity? 

No. If I did, I wouldn’t be a Columbia student. And neither would you. 

A professor of mine, Alexander Chee, inadvertently gave me a secret to success last semester while we talked about my divorce. Over coffee at Joe, he leaned across the table and said, “You need to let yourself off the hook.” The mistake shadowing me had a reason to be there—it had a purpose. If I stopped feeling bad for myself, I could find it. We all make mistakes. We all fuck up. The difference between failure and success is simply whether or not we lay there festering in our mistakes, or get over them. Success is continuing to battle towards a goal, whether it’s NASA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or simply graduation. Success is letting ourselves off the hook. If we hold ourselves hostage with regrets about things we could have done differently, we will never learn anything or go anywhere. And that, to me, seems like the clearest definition of success: crossing a finish line. 

As there isn’t One Definition of Success encompassing all Columbians, there is no One Finish Line for all of us—even in death we seem to end up in different places. We’re a diverse student body, but we do all have something major in common: the something moving inside of each of us, urging us towards a finish line, and we’re all getting one step closer to it. Correspondingly, we Columbians know exactly what we do not want: mediocrity. And isn’t knowing what we don’t want at the finish line just as important as knowing what we do want?

Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place. Maybe we should have broken up ages before marriage even became a part of the equation. But if we hadn’t gotten married, I wouldn’t have crossed the absolute finish line of our relationship. So I’ve let myself off the hook, and I define my personal success as learning from this mistake. Yes, things could be better, but they could also be worse. I’ve got another two years here, after all, and my definition of success will change as winds, rain, and snow attempt to knock me down Low Steps. Will I succeed by holding my head high and waiting for the storm to pass under one strong-ass umbrella, or am I going to huddle up in fear under a twisted mess of black fabric and sharp metal sticks? If I slip, am I going to retreat, or create one hell of a comeback story? What would you do?

Because the definition of success is not universal, there is only one person who can answer the question, “Have my mistakes been successful?” If you haven’t gotten the hint: It’s you.

Jane Rebecca Marchant is a second-year student in the School of General Studies majoring in creative writing and sustainable development.

To respond to this piece, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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