Choking back tears, I shoved my grade report into my backpack as I left my English professor’s office. I was bewildered that he had given me a C+ in freshman Composition and Literature. Was it a mistake? I’d always performed well in high school English classes and had worked hard in the course. He acknowledged my work, but shrugged, “You just can’t write—you deserve a C. I gave you that ‘plus’ for effort.”
This experience was pivotal in my decision to pursue a science-oriented career. I avoided taking English classes, but learned to write scientific reports and papers—in the passive voice, without emotion. The simple formula, logic, and concrete flow of scientific writing came easy to me; I slowly gained a little confidence as a writer.
In order to graduate, I had to take one more English course. So the summer before senior year, I enrolled in Films and Literature. The teacher and content were inspiring. We explored similarities and differences in how stories are brought to life in books versus movies. As an avid fiction reader, this class tapped into my passion for stories. I tackled my writing assignments with zeal and frequently sought the teacher’s feedback as I developed my essays. After one feedback session, my professor said, “You are a very strong writer.” In disbelief, I shared my tale from freshman English. His diplomatic answer still rings in my ears: “I don’t know what happened in that class … but maybe you’re just a late bloomer.”
My freshman professor propelled me away from English/Journalism; my senior professor inspired my writing career. At age 26, I published my first book. My senior professor reframed my development as a writer, but I think the C+ also contributed to my growth.
Success Sometimes Has Roots in Failure
In a copywriting workshop last weekend, I listened to other participants read brilliant ad copy that they had crafted during 4-minute exercises. Meanwhile, I sat frozen in writer’s block collecting eraser crumbs around my workspace. Unable to tap into my creative energy, I spun into the self-doubt that started with my C+ so many years ago . . . “I can’t write creative copy.” “I’ll never be clever and succinct.” “I better go back to the [boring] writing I know how to do.” Those mental tapes still echoed in my mind as I sat down to write this newsletter on Monday.
To recover my flow as a writer, I revisited my journey from C+ to published author. My struggles with writing might apply to broader challenges: leadership, innovation, problem solving, and career development.
- Flaws Might Contain the Gems—Talents, skills, and ideas rarely start with the brilliance that they may later possess. My response to run away from the C+ is a common human reaction to perceived failure. But if we don’t revisit our early failures with renewed effort, we may toss undeveloped skills and high-potential ideas to the wayside. Inside my fear of failure as a writer I found a hidden gem: conveying science in compelling ways.
- Confidence Comes from the Basics—The formulaic writing assignments and research papers I wrote in college helped me master the mechanical aspects of writing: organization, flow, and grammar. Competency in these basics empowered me to take on bigger challenges. Similarly, leadership fundamentals equip entrepreneurs to navigate the more challenging aspects of growing a business. When stuck in a quagmire, sometimes it helps to go back to the basics.
- Power of Coaching and Feedback—Because of my C+, I sought feedback the second time around. Coaching from trusted advisers pays off. On the flip side, if you are a leader, consider how you deliver feedback. Harsh, unfeeling messages can demoralize—send people running the other way. Concrete and actionable feedback empowers growth.
- Magic of Story—Serendipity … My turning point as a writer started in a class about analyzing books and movies. I’ve come to believe that stories woven into science communications provide emotional context so that facts and data become more meaningful and memorable.
Looking back on my college English classes, I’m glad that my freshman professor graded me harshly. While a B- would have felt better at the time, the C+ made me a more humble learner. Certainly, all my subsequent writing accomplishments feel more rewarding because of this mediocre beginning.