High stress in the Christmas season: Don’t sweat the small stuff

You think flunking a test is bad? Wait until you get cancer and your parents get Alzheimer's. Who knows, failure might kick you through the door to success.


WASHINGTON, December 8, 2016 —December is a cruel and stressful month. The costs and pressures of the holiday season – gifts, cooking, decorating, travel, houseguests, and the relentless pressure to be cheerful in the season of good cheer – are brutal, but if you’re young, there’s something worse.

Final papers and exams.

Students are prone to tearful outbursts and panic during finals week. The pressure to succeed is real, the fear of failure is sharp, and the tendency to magnify mole hills into mountains makes the merely serious into a life-and-death crisis.

Teachers try to be sympathetic, but we don’t always succeed. “That paper was assigned in September. You had almost three months to work on it; if you need more time, build a time machine.” “If you’d read the assignments, you’d know this material. If you’d come to see me during my many office hours, I could have helped you. And no, there’s no extra credit.”

“I have to pass this class! I’m a graduating senior!”

“No, you’re not.”

That seems unsympathetic, but if students won’t learn organic chemistry or Renaissance art, they should at least learn this: Once you’ve made your choices, you own them.

Okay, that’s the tough love. Now for some encouragement.

What’s the worst that could happen when you take a final exam? Besides bursting into flames. You could burst into flames, but realistically, the worst that could happen is that you could fail. That’s not what you hope for, but put it in perspective; is it as bad as a brain tumor or stepping on an IEDfffff? Is it as bad as a divorce or being fired from your job? How does it compare to the death of a friend, or even of a beloved pet?

On the cosmic scale of awfulness, failing an exam comes pretty low. Failing one exam won’t even get you kicked out of school; that takes failing a lot of them. If you do fail a lot of them, perhaps you should find a life path that doesn’t involve having to pass calculus, Latin or economics. The universe is telling you, “do something else.”

If I had it all to do over again, I think I’d have enjoyed being a pastry chef or a jewelry designer. I might have enjoyed studying music or writing fiction. But undeterred by failure, I marched resolutely on to a doctorate in economics, and now I teach economics and Russian. The other possibilities are gone. Is that cause for satisfaction, or regret?

I don’t know whether the alternatives would have been better or worse, but I do know I’ve enjoyed my life, so I’m satisfied. But I only know that now, over 20 years after earning my doctorate, and I still don’t know how my story will turn out.

Suppose you’re walking down the street and a brick falls on your head. Are you unlucky? You get rushed to the hospital, meet a beautiful or hunky neurologist who falls in love with you, you win a huge settlement from the construction firm that dropped the brick on you and become a national spokesperson for victims of workplace accidents. Or you miss your flight to Paris and curse your luck. As you watch your plane head out over the Atlantic from the departure lounge, a wing explodes and the plane makes a slow, agonizing death spiral into the ocean while the people on board all have time to contemplate their doom and spend their last seconds screaming their fear and regret.

Being hit by a brick might be the best thing that ever happened to you, and catching you flight to a dream vacation might be the worst. You can’t know whether the things that happen to you are for the good or the bad until you’re ready to leave this life.

As with exams, so also with the other stressors in your life. What seems good or bad now may not seem that way tomorrow. And if you don’t fail, if you don’t crash and burn, you’ll never know whether you’re a phoenix.

Failing an exam, losing a job, or being dumped beneath the mistletoe might be the best thing that ever happened to you. Or it might truly suck. In the moment, you’re probably the least qualified person to say. You won’t know until your life is over, and your life won’t end just because you lost a job or failed an exam.

And the odds are that you didn’t fail, and that might be your bad luck.

Enjoy the season, be glad for the moment, and don’t sweat the small stuff. And in the story of your life, that accounting final is definitely some of the small stuff.

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