Posted on April 9, 2009 at 12:57pm EDT. More.

Needless failure

People who know me would probably be surprised by the grades my college transcript. In general, I did well, but my GPA was not stellar. I think I’ve got each possible letter grade represented somewhere on there. The one I want to tell you  about is my one A+.

Ten years ago, in the spring of 1999, I enrolled in CS 212. At the time, Cornell computer science students could choose between CS 211 (“two-eleven”), which was taught using Java, a practical programming language used in the real world, or CS 212 (“two-twelve”), which was more nerdy and mathematical and required learning Scheme, a language nobody had ever heard of, because nobody uses it outside of courses like this.

Due to a mixture of ego and peer pressure (the same mixture that later pushed me into advanced physics classes I shouldn’t have taken), I elected to take 212. For somebody who had already learned a good bit of programming by fooling around with computers throughout middle and high school, it was an eye opening experience. Scheme was my introduction to “functional” programming, and it was both weird and beautiful. The professor and course staff talked about code being “elegant” in a way that I had never heard before but immediately understood. I got this class and I loved this class.

Thus, it was heartbreaking when the first problem set was graded and I received a less than perfect score. As I already said, I was not accustomed to a perfect record, nor did I feel it was my due. But I remember reviewing the problems and realizing that I hadn’t lost any points because I didn’t understand the material or couldn’t figure out how to solve the problems. I lost points because I was careless. I put off the assignment until the night before and rushed through it. I realized that if I had spent any time checking my work I would have caught all my mistakes. I had no excuse for a less than perfect score.

Considering how much I loved the class, it was embarrassing. So I swore that, for the remaining assignments, I was not going to make any mistakes. I said it out loud, walking down Libe Slope on the way home from my 212 section. (It didn’t hurt when I needed to find a partner for future assignments.)

I kept my word and aced the remaining problem sets. I did well on the tests, earned an A+ in the course, and was later asked to be on the course staff. CS 212 will always be a fond memory and point of pride of my time at Cornell.

My recent audition for a Harold team has reminded me of that moment; the parallels are uncanny for two such apparently unrelated things. While I joined everybody in wondering aloud why they didn’t get picked, I knew that if I was placed on a team it would have been in spite of my audition, not because of it.

I know that, at the end of the day, there are a million factors out of my control that would affect whether or not I would be picked out of hundreds of other qualified people, and I accept that. But that does not excuse me from taking responsibility for all of the factors that are completely under my control.

Today, that is what I will set out to do.