I want to talk to all of you who are feeling ‘stupid’ while you’re studying. As you’re on your study path (whatever it is that you’re studying), those feelings are real, and they definitely impact your stress levels, your mental state and even the way you study.
The world tells you to “Be positive!”… but what if you’re not? How do you “Be positive!” about something you’re scared of?
I’m going to share my ‘stupid’ journey with you. (To clarify… my journey wasn’t stupid… I just felt stupid all the time!) It mirrors the discussions I’ve had with hundreds of students I’ve taught over the years. You really need to know that you’re not alone. Realise that some things are totally ‘normal’… even if no one really talks about them. Mostly, I want you to know that just because you ‘feel stupid’, it doesn’t mean that you won’t reach your goals.
A few points
- My journey to qualification took me 11 years (You can read about my journey here if you want some more background)
- I was never a ‘positive’ student, not in undergrad… and CERTAINLY not in CTA! I never felt smart. I never felt like I was going to be ‘ok’. I wasn’t an ‘amazing’ student.I felt STUPID the WHOLE time (I also worried that the fact that I COULDN’T just “Be positive” was going to be part of the reason that I’d fail! I even failed at being positive!!!)
- I cried many tears before, during and after exams (almost EVERY single one), because I was so worried that I was going to fail
- No matter what I passed, no matter what I achieved, I attributed it to luck, or something other than my ability to achieve the goal. I could NOT internalise the feeling of achievement. I always had some reason, some excuse about why it didn’t really ‘count’, or why it didn’t actually MEAN that I was capable of achieving my main goal.
- I ALWAYS felt like I knew NOTHING. Again, no matter what I passed, I was totally convinced that I knew NOTHING. It was an all-or-nothing thing for me. I couldn’t accept that I clearly knew at least enough to pass. I had this feeling in the pit of my stomach that I knew nothing. (This was because in my earlier years of studying and school, I was always able to study enough to FEEL like I knew enough and I knew my stuff well enough to pass. It was something I could QUANTIFY. I would KNOW when I was ready for an exam. As levels got higher, and exams changed, I could no longer get to that feeling of comfort, and that FREAKED me out!)
- I pushed hard to get that qualification, but if you asked me if I was ‘sure’ that I’d eventually get there… I would’ve said “No… I don’t think I’ll actually make it”.
- I constantly felt like a con-artist. At SOME point, someone would realise how stupid I was, and how little I knew. I lived in fear that I would be ‘found out’ in some way to be as stupid as I felt I was. (This is called ‘Imposter Syndrome‘, and is a thing that MANY MANY professionals struggle with.
I never felt a real sense of achievement in any of the little successes along the way, they never seemed to boost my confidence, because I knew that the next exam would be tougher. I couldn’t rely on the fact that I’d passed the previous exams… that was no guarantee of the next one.
Basically… I felt stupid through the entire journey. People kept telling me that I should feel ‘smarter’, or that I shouldn’t worry about failing anything, because I hadn’t failed anything in the past. It didn’t help at all.
Did it change as I passed?
I thought that once I got my BCompt degree, I wouldn’t be feeling stupid. I would feel like I’d accomplished something. I didn’t. All I could do was worry that I wouldn’t pass CTA because I knew (or thought I knew!) how tough it was going to be.
I failed quite a few tests through the CTA year, so it was a LONG year of feeling immensely stupid. It actually prevented me from studying for about a month. I was just so paralysed by fear after I got Test 1 results back, that I couldn’t do anything.
I passed UNISA’s CTA on my first attempt. I will never forget that feeling. Disbelief, shock, (anxiety that I’d looked at my marks wrong and I’d actually failed!). I only started feeling happy a day or so later… it took so long to sink in.
So, did I feel smart now? Did I feel like I’d left ‘stupid’ behind? No. I was scared that I’d fail Board 1. I was starting Articles. I was a UNISA student, so I felt like a second-rate candidate. When I looked at the Board course pack… I couldn’t do any of the questions. They didn’t look like the stuff I’d been studying. I could barely MARK the stuff I tried, because everything felt so different. I felt stupid.
I passed Board 1 on my first attempt. I was shocked, stunned and seriously relieved. Did I leave the feeling of ‘stupid’ behind? No. I was worried about my Articles, which was requiring more responsibility, challenges, and I’d started lecturing part-time (So I also worried about that!).
I failed Test 1 of the Board course for Board 2. I was horrified, scared and felt like giving up. If I couldn’t get this right, what made me think I could get anything else right? I passed the course, thankfully, and went on to stressing about Board 2 itself. I wrote, and passed on my first attempt.
By now, I only had a few months of Articles left before I could be signed off and meet the requirements to qualify as a CA. Did I feel ‘smart’? Did I feel like I left ‘stupid’ behind? Nope. I was now worried about what I’d do with the ‘rest of my life’!
Let’s stop here for now… and see what we’ve got so far:
- I passed everything first time (all my modules in my degree, CTA and both Board exams)… none of this made me feel less ‘stupid’
- People kept telling me I must be smart to do all this… I felt like a con-artist… if they spoke to me long enough, they’d realise just how ‘stupid’ I was
- No matter what level I got through, I immediately had more challenging stuff to deal with, which totally blocked out the sense of achievement from the last level
- I eventually stopped talking to people, because they kept insisting that I should “Be positive”. I didn’t feel like my approach was negative… I just felt I was being realistic!
So… I was now qualified, and I had decided to go into lecturing full time. New, daunting, terrifying journey. Standing in front of groups of people trying to convince them that you know stuff and can get them through exams?! That was hectic!
I started lecturing CTA Auditing in my second year of full time lecturing (2011). I was now TEACHING the stuff that had scared me. Did I feel ‘smart’ now?! Nope. The new challenge was now to try get others through their exams… my new sense of failure would be OTHER student’s failures!
Do I still feel ‘stupid’?
No. I don’t… but it’s not what I expected! I guess I expected that one day, I’d have this lightbulb moment where all of a sudden, I’d know everything, and be the smartest person in the room, and never worry that I didn’t know what I needed to know. I guess I felt that one day it would all ‘make sense’, and I’d know what I should do for the rest of my life, and I’d feel competent and smart and capable and totally prepared for everything… that’s hilarious!
What’s the reality?
The reality is that as a professional, we constantly stretch ourselves. Our studies and qualification prepare us to push ourselves for the REST OF OUR LIVES! We’ll never really be those people who ‘settle’ into a job and stay there for twenty years. We want to change the world, make a lot of money, do exciting things that have never been done before!
None of that comes without challenges. If you want more out of life, if you want to push the boundaries… you have to realise that it means that you will be grappling with new concepts, new challenges, new ideas and new people. You will constantly be working with stuff you haven’t done before.
Want the scarier news?! NONE of these real-life challenges come with textbooks, or suggested solutions! You’re on your own! You will have people, and resources to help, but there’s no ‘right’ answer if you’re doing new stuff!
What’s my point?
Feeling ‘stupid’ is great preparation to the rest of your life! You will probably feel uncomfortable for most of your life. You will stop feeling ‘stupid’, and that will change into an acceptance of the fact that you’re facing a challenge. Instead of letting that challenge turn into fear and stress… you will face it, and deal with it, and realise that if it was easy… everyone would be doing it!
Not feeling ‘stupid’, doesn’t mean that you will feel like you ‘know everything’. It just means that you won’t let it make you feel bad. If you think you know everything… that’s when you’re in trouble!!!
Where does that leave you now?
It’s ok to feel stupid. It’s ok to struggle. It’s really really normal for you when you’re studying. It doesn’t mean that you won’t reach your goals. Sure, it makes things feel really challenging. Sure, the future is really uncertain and it would help a LOT of someone could tell you that everything will be ok.
There isn’t much that you can do to change the difficulties of your journey… but what you can do, is be ok with the fact that the ‘stupid’ challenges are PART of the journey! Dealing with them are what’s going to make you even more awesome!