Angles :p(This is part two of Success, Failure, and High School Math.  You can find part one here.)


I had to define “logarithm.”

“A logarithm,” I wrote while smirking, “is the rhythm at which loggers work!”

I should have known that math teachers don’t have a high tolerance for lumberjack humor — or creativity in general.

With high school math, you’re either right or wrong.  You can’t argue your way through a gray area like you can in English Literature or Civics.  You can’t construct a persuasive speech to convince the teacher why X should equal 4 even though the coveted Teacher’s Edition says x = 5.

Precision is valued; humor…is not.

So, perhaps it’s no surprise that I got an F on this test.  It was my first F; it was the first documented academic failure of my life.  Mr. Harry handed back the test and that big fat F, written in red pen and circled twice, and stared back at me.

Sure, I was worried about my GPA. I was worried about getting into the right college. And I knew that math classes always build upon previously-learned concepts, so I was worried about not understanding anything (especially anything related to logarithms) for the rest of the school year.

Did I cry?  No.  Did I panic?  No, I hadn’t yet experienced the hell that is a panic attack.  Did I get angry at myself? Or at the teacher? No, and no.


In fact, I laughed.  I laughed, right there in the first seat of the first row, and my worries started to fade.  The F, I realized, was a terribly positive thing.

A life-long academic perfectionist, I had finally failed at something. And my failure didn’t sting as badly as I’d thought it would.

In fact, I stuck the test on my parents’ fridge.

Success isn’t about grades.  It’s not about numbers or quantitative measurements.  It’s not about getting rich quick or hounding your entire social network to buy your silly Amway and Quixtar products.

It’s not defined by what Mr. Harry writes on the blackboard.  In fact, it’s not necessarily defined by what Mr. Webster writes in his dictionary.  Success isn’t always a favorable or desired outcome.  Success isn’t always the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence.

My big fat F served me well. It helped me to narrow down the area of academics that I wanted to focus on in college (read: not math). It helped me to — dare I say — succeed in other classes by getting me to focus on the quality of my work and not on my GPA.

And of course, I felt confident and wise and grown-uppy about having found a tangential (come on, I had to!) life lesson from my trig class.

Sometimes, failure is success.

Have you failed at something lately? If so, what changed as a result of that failure — you? The circumstance? Your personal definition of the word “fail”?

And, of course: how do you define success?

Creative Commons License photo credit: dichohecho



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    Last reviewed: 11 Jul 2011

APA Reference
Beretsky, S. (2011). Success, Failure, and High School Math: Part II. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2014, from


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