"Eventis sultorum magister" (Experience is the teacher of fools)
(for a job application) Describe a time when you did not succeed, and what you learned from it.
To be frank, I have not failed to achieve the large goals in my professional life (although more do remain), as most of my broad professional goals have been achieved thus far - albeit eventually and incrementally– but only through overcoming an array of grant failures, job rejections, and losses that are requisite along the way. That being said, one thing does stand out for when I did not ultimately succeed, and walked away in failure: I failed miserably at my goals to become an NCAA Champion in my college wrestling career. I was a walk-on Division III back-up wrestler on the historically best wrestling team in the nation, and I got horribly brutalized day in and day out during my first semester. However, I got better each and every day, and kept fighting to inch forward in toughness & skill sets. I soon progressed to challenging, and then beating, the national champions and All-American teammates in our daily battles in practice, often giving up over 30-40 lbs. to bigger and stronger opponents. But in so doing, I learned to fight though several torn rotator cuffs and concussions incurred through the years’ fights, and it took a toll in competitions but I kept on pushing.
Then one night, after beating out the top guy at my weight, I was hit by a car at 50 mph while biking home from practice. Miraculously, I survived, and fought hard to return to the mat 30 days later with a torn MCL in my knee. Painfully, I fought through this successfully and continued to compete. But since I was also paying my own way through school at the time, and on the cusp of both a Rhodes Scholarship and full-ride for a neuroscience PhD program in graduate school, it was a sobering time to keep focused on broader goals beyond sport amid the frustration of injury & losses after over a decade of sacrifices. This ultimately impeded my ability to complete my goal of an NCAA championship, sustaining a concussion the night before national qualifiers. The teammate I beat that day ended up as an All-American that year, and another took 2nd in the country.
What did I learn from this? From the scope of this experience, I learned a broader focus of priorities, how to overcome major injury to persevere and return to the fight competitively. More importantly, though, I learned who I was. How do I respond when literally knocked down & out, taken out at the knees from behind? Do you fight back from the ropes, and do you refuse to quit? What do you do when that storm hits? Do you hunker down, or do you climb to the mast like Lt. Dan and scream: “is that all you’ve got?” I learned the answer to these questions for me. I learned also how good I could really be when I put my whole heart, soul, & mind to it: I built up from a walk-on scrub, to competing and then beating some of the best wrestlers in America (I discovered my humbling limitations, too). I had, and still have, nothing to show for it: no awards, no championships, no all-American status, no recognition – only scars of the body and mind. But I learned that those things don’t truly matter in the least; rather, it is the intrinsic rewards of what I knew had been accomplished, which brought true fulfillment. Being “the man in the arena” that T.R. Roosevelt described, standing tall after being broken, and then rising again, doesn’t require any recognition from anyone but yourself, and that is the greatest prize one can win.
~ Dr. Richard J. Addante is a Neuroscientist and professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, and was a walk-on back-up Division III NCAA wrestler for The College of New Jersey from 2000-2004, and Head Coach of Robbinsville High School (NJ) and Florida Atlantic University in 2005 & 2006, respectively.