The Power of Perspective (and How I Let It Convince Me I'd Failed)


In my last post, I shared a piece of my past: how, back in 2004, I'd attended Colorado State University and struggled right out of the gate. Due to significant depression and an overall lack of faith in myself and my abilities, I failed all my classes and dropped out.


Or so I thought.


It turns out...that's not what actually happened at all.


Earlier this week, I realized I could pull my old academic record from all those years ago, now that I'm once again a registered student at the university. I wanted to see how many credits I had under my belt; in meetings with an advisor, I'd been surprised to learn that some of my credits had carried over after all these years, even though I failed my classes. Driven by curiosity, I was anxious to see where exactly I stood.


I pulled the record and watched as the class names and grades materialized in front of me. And, well...I'll just show you.



What the actual fuck, you guys.


I DIDN'T FAIL ALL MY CLASSES.


In fact, I actually did well in all but one of them!


Yet, the story I've been telling myself, for the last 16 years, is that my academic experience was a complete and utter failure.


Why?


Because of my perspective.



I had no idea, back then, that I was a perfectionist; I didn't learn this about myself until my thirties. In fact, I always assumed the opposite: I thought I was a lazy pile of garbage most of the time, and that everything I undertook or produced turned out sub-par. (I hadn't yet realized that this attitude is essentially the textbook definition of perfectionism, assuming instead that perfectionists were people who, you know, did everything perfectly.)


Of course, my perfectionism is obvious now, when I look back on this digital report card and realize that one single D grade was all it took for me to view my entire college experience through a lens of total failure.


The strangest thing about all this is the fact that I actually remember getting Fs. I remember the failure. I remember understanding that I'd irretrievably fucked up my chance at a successful future. Why would I remember it that way if that's not what actually happened?


Perspective.



We place a lot of trust in our ability to remember things. As much as we like to believe our recollections are infallible, however, memories are not as reliable as we assume. Our stored memories are not always historically accurate glimpses of what actually transpired; they're recorded interpretations of events, rather than recorded events themselves. And the recollections stored within our brains are skewed through a variety of lenses, depending on how we interpreted the experiences.


I interpreted my singular D grade as a blanket failure - which meant, of course, that I was not focusing on the A I received in U.S. History, or the B I earned in Individual & Family Development. And over time, as the details faded, all I remembered was the thing I had been singularly focusing on: the failure. My brain conjured up a slew of F's where there were none - and I believed they were real. That failure became my truth.


And I let that "truth" dictate the next sixteen years of my life.



A friend once told me about learning how to play golf with her father when she was a child. Every lesson, he would chastise her for looking all around before she swung her club, clocking sand traps and nearby woods where the ball would be lost.


"Keep your eye on the place where you want the ball to go," he told her, over and over again. "If you're looking at the sand, that's where you'll end up. You move in the direction of your focus."


I think of this often, whenever I am confronted with the reality of where my limiting beliefs have led me. It's fitting here, too. I focused not on the good grades I earned, but on the D. And all my attention, memory, and brainpower went into moving in the direction of my focus. Though I had no idea what I was doing, I effectively rewrote the truth to reflect that focus as the star of the story.



Given that I was struggling with fairly severe depression, hopelessness, and loneliness at the time, the fact that I managed to pull off three out of four passing grades was pretty laudable. What if I'd seen that, back then?


I told myself, "I got a D, therefore I'm a failure and I can't do this." What if I'd said, "I passed all but one of my classes, even though I've been really struggling lately - what an achievement" instead? What could have happened? How might the situation have turned out entirely differently, if I'd just given myself grace, let go of my perfectionism, and celebrated my successes, rather than dwelling on my failure?


I wouldn't have dropped out of school. I would have used my passing grades as evidence of my capability. And my whole life thereafter would have been very, very different.


I point this out not with regret; despite the hard times, I'm glad my life has gone the way it has, because I wouldn't be who I am otherwise, and I quite like who I've come to be. I do, however, think it's utterly fascinating to realize how one small shift in focus, in perspective, can entirely alter the trajectory of one's life.


There is great power in perspective, indeed - so much more than we realize.


I leave you with a thought to ponder: If we move in the direction of our focus...what are you moving toward?


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© 2020 by Ali Owens​