So long, 2016

Caitlin McLaren - Editor-In-Chief
Posted on: November 22, 2016

At this point, it’s a cliche to say that 2016 was not the best year. Between the deaths of beloved celebrities, the ongoing social problems that are becoming ever more visible, and of course the politics (let’s not go there), it seemed that there was wave after wave of bad news all year. I don’t know what kind of term you have had, but mine seemed Sisyphean – if you are an upper year your life is dominated by projects, and if you are not, then you are still adjusting to the new expectations. University is never easy.

There are two important things to realize when you hear about bad things happening. One is that you can’t change the world, and the other is that yes, you can change the world.

The world is the way it is – yes there are wars, there is suffering, your favourite sports team does lose. Those things are outside of your control, and brooding about them is completely unhelpful. Becoming a misanthrope makes the world a worse place, not a better one.

On the other hand, a lot of things are indeed under your control, and you can also help with other problems. You don’t like the political scene? Be an activist. People die – don’t forget about the living, be thankful for them. Work to make the world better in little ways. Donate your time or money, if you have them. (Who am I kidding? We are students.) Perform random acts of kindness. Don’t let the problems in the world around you get to you – they aren’t your fault. However, the problems in your own circle of influence are your responsibility. Don’t focus on the big picture and don’t ignore the little picture – you can actually control the little picture. Make it into some epic art.

Of course, even your life isn’t entirely under your control – we all live under the tyranny of school work. Sometimes we fall behind in homework or fail an exam, or just don’t get the mark we thought we deserved. Sometimes it isn’t our fault, and sometimes it is.

Another thing you should realize, or be realizing, is that we are all in this together. Your friends’ success is your success; any victory for a person in this world is good for the world. That goes for life, but also for schoolwork. You need to get notes from your friend, or ask someone how the heck they did problem 3b.

Or you need to ask them to write an article to fill in for someone at the last minute (sorry, Alex!) or get someone to explain how InDesign works (thanks, Cameron, Raeesa, and Meagan!). Generally, your friends can help you get through difficult times (thanks to the awesome crop of first-years, who contributed an unbelievable amount to the paper this term!). Some special people are willing to stay up all night to make sure everything is together (You rock, Raeesa!).

I’m looking forward to handing over this paper to Donovan, who will be taking over in January, and to Vince, who will be EIC in the spring term. You guys will do an amazing job!

This term has been really busy for me, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without this awesome staff. If I learned one thing this term, it would be: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. If this year has been tough, or this term has been tough, you learn to handle more pressure. Don’t panic; adapt. Ask for help, and do whatever you need to do.

Sometimes things are hard, but think about it in a different way. Your parents or grandparents very likely came to Canada from another country, or perhaps you did. If not, they came at some point, whether it was during the Age of Exploration, or across the Bering Strait eons ago. They survived that, and it could not have been easy. Your ancestors, whatever place they came from, survived war, famine, and plague. They spent their days performing backbreaking labour, and they survived that. Back in the time when they were primitive hominids, they survived every lion and sabre-toothed tiger. When they were small mammals, they dodged dinosaurs and pterosaurs. And so on, and so forth.

That is your heritage; it’s written in your DNA. They got through all of that, and they survived. You will too, because if there’s one thing humans are damn good at, it’s surviving tough times. Whatever you do, don’t tell yourself you can’t do something.

There is an experiment that’s a little hard to describe, but I will give it a shot. Stand up and point your finger directly in front of yourself. Turn towards the side of that hand, twisting as far as you can go. Take note of where your finger is pointing when you have twisted as much as you possibly can. Then, go back to normal. Close your eyes, and visualize yourself twisting again – but further. Visualize yourself pointing a foot or so further than you did last time. Now, twist again.

You could twist further, couldn’t you? You could do what you had visualized, right? I was surprised the first time too, but it is absolutely real. Many of your body’s physical limits are imposed by your brain, not by your bone and muscle. That’s why there are stories of people performing incredible feats of strength in times of crisis – the emergency overrides their mental limits, and our bodies are a lot stronger than we normally give them credit for. This is not for no reason – if our bodies worked to their maximum potential all the time, there would be a great deal of wear and tear – but in a difficult situation, our normal limits do not apply.

Similarly, a lot of other things we think of as our limits are also mentally imposed. If we keep telling ourselves we are bad at calculus, our brains say “I don’t understand this, and since I’m ‘bad at this’ I have an excuse!” That’s isn’t true. If your brain couldn’t understand mathematics, you couldn’t toss a ball up and down and catch it. If you were actually bad at writing – well you’re reading this, aren’t you? If you aren’t smart enough to be a Waterloo engineer – you’re here, aren’t you?

If you tell yourself you are capable of doing things, they will be easier. That doesn’t mean you should be in overdrive all the time, because burnout is a real thing. Set high, but reasonable goals, and stay focused. After all, we have terms for a reason. There is always an endpoint.

When I was a first-year, I distinctly remember the Dean telling the class of 2017 “You will fail.” I also remember going “Pshaw, not me!” But I did, eventually, fail some things – the odd assignment I didn’t have time for, that midterm I didn’t study enough for (*cough* organic chemistry *cough*). Even if you don’t fail, you will definitely reach a point where you are disappointed with yourself.

Still, a setback isn’t any reason to give up, or feel down in the dumps; look at it as a challenge. If you pass this challenge, you are ready for the next one, and one step more badass. Even if you don’t pass this term, you still learned valuable lessons.

What did you learn this term? I don’t mean “a bowling ball slides along the floor before starting to roll. Calculate the coefficient of friction.” Instead, what did you learn about yourself?

Do you need to study more? “No” is an entirely acceptable answer. There are a lot more things than marks, and focusing too much on every percentage point can make you miss the big picture. You are here to learn, not to obtain grades. On the other hand, if you aren’t satisfied with your performance this term, don’t say “I’m not smart.” That’s nonsense. If you put in the work, you can definitely do it.

Exams start when, in two weeks? (Crap!) That’s fine. Step 1: Tell yourself you will ace them all. Keep telling yourself that, out loud or in print or whatever you find most convincing, until you believe it. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, but in a good way. Step 2: Actually put in the work. It isn’t going to come free! Take breaks, for sure; that’s an important part; but you only get out what you put in. Step 3: Walk into the exam room and say to yourself “I know what I know, and I will do my best”. Write down whatever you know, and don’t fret about anything you don’t. Just do whatever you can – and even if the result isn’t what you wanted, you will know you did your best. Step 4: Do anything you want – get plastered, you earned it, watch the entire run of The Magic School Bus, sleep for a week – but don’t beat yourself up about any bad results. Learn a lesson, and use it for the future. Don’t get angry about the past.

Anyway, it’ll be 2017 soon, so chin up!