False Starts


This is the story of how three times, twice when I was at university, the other time when I started working life, I had to regroup because the initial attempt failed.

When I started out as a student, I made the mistake of commuting every day between Bruges and Ghent, a half-hour train journey plus additional travel which in all amounted to 2 hours per day lost in travel. I also was caught out by the system of tests taken throughout the year which counted for a third of the points and where my performance varied from bad to abysmal.

The result ? I was advised to stop the first set of exams because I would have failed so badly that I would have been refused a resit. But even with a better effort in September, trying to make up for the lost points of the tests proved insurmountable.

Still, passing with distinction when I redid the first year proved that I had a learnt a number of valuable lessons. The first of these lessons is to develop a method of studying that gets you through tests and exams. The second is to make sure that you make use of whatever resources available to you at the time, which of necessity includes past exam questions. The latter make you realise that there’s only a limited number of questions that can turn up in an exam, and that you can develop a system of keywords that guide you through each topic.

The second time was when I had to select a topic for a thesis, and chose “Electro-galvanising in weak acidic non-cyanide solutions”, a follow-on of a similar thesis done the year before in alkaline solutions. The conclusion : never do a follow-up thesis, because unless your effort is clearly superior to the earlier attempt, you’re going to be compared unfavourably with it. Although a score of 70% on the thesis was OK-ish, a slightly higher score would have landed me a “great distinction” rather than the distinction which marginally missed the higher grade.

The last false start was not to understand the industry I was going to enter, and what steps to take to perform well from the start. For starters, I did not fully understand what an engineer actually did, not realising that the syllabus only spoke of how systems were supposed to work in an ideal set-up rather than show how engineers carry it along to overcome all the bugs and warts that real life throws at the unwary.

I also had not realised that, in order to find a job at any company as a metallurgist, it’s a good thing if your face is already known, which you do by doing some holiday work in companies that you take a fancy to. Since I didn’t know this, I took up the offer of working as a researcher at the university, not realising that in an industrial environment a job at a university is not seen as a “proper job”. That became very clear at the time I had started job hunting on leaving the army. Plus, the last thing I learnt during the 8 months I was unemployed is that it’s far easier to look for a job when you’re still in a job rather than from an unemployed position.

This became abundantly clear when after nearly half a year of unemployment I had an interview, and the interviewer looked at my CV. His remark that I was still unemployed after several months clearly carried overtones of “What’s wrong with you ?”. That’s why, when I had the good fortune of getting a second stint at the same Laboratory for Iron & Steel Making, I immediately made sure that I went on the job hunt. That’s also why, when the professor had the bad news that my annual contract could not be renewed, I was glad to be in the comfortable position of having the position with Iscor in my pocket.

In short : it’s OK to fail, provided you learn from your mistakes. Which I hope I have done over the subsequent 30-odd years.

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