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On Failure and Quilting

April 24, 2017

I acknowledge that I was never the smartest kid in class, but I am smart and have always been a good student and a hard worker. I would say I’m also pretty good at not sweating the small stuff, little failures aren’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. I had trouble learning to read when I was little even though I love books, and even now I’m not a fast reader but I still love it. No, what I’ve always been good at is math and spacial visualization, which I personally think goes hand in hand with sewing. So I spent 7 years getting two degrees in engineering and I’ve been working as an engineer for almost 4 years. I love it. I love problem solving and building useful infrastructure. I can easily say being an engineer is part of my identity now. I am a good engineer too.

Last fall I sat for the Professional Engineering exam and failed.

I still get sad thinking about it. It’s hard to describe how upset and shaken I was. I was so depressed because being a good engineer is part of who I am, but this is supposed to be a test of your engineering skills and I failed. I feel like a part of me was crushed, like one leg was swept out from under me and all I could do was hop around aimlessly. Passing the PE is such an important step in any engineer’s career, I literally cannot be promoted at my current job until I pass. To make it worse, coworkers who I know I’m a better engineer and smarter than, passed on the first try. I didn’t check my score online that day until I got home, which was good because I was sobbing and shaking so hard my cats were confused and just stared at me from a safe distance. It’s a good thing my cube at work is kind of in a corner because I definitely started crying at work a couple times. I went home sick at least once because I just couldn’t do anything. People kept telling me that I was probably just one right answer away from passing or that it was probably just bad luck that the fall test was especially difficult (they don’t tell you what a passing grade is because it varies each time, in fact the test can vary in difficulty each time also). And it probably was just one or two wrong answers that tripped me up, but that doesn’t make it better. This is a pass/fail test, it doesn’t matter if you almost passed, you still just fail. People kept saying they were sure I’d pass this time and I’d get so mad and upset because everyone said the same bullshit the first time and it didn’t happen. I told people to stop saying that sort of thing but apparently it’s hard for people to lay off the “encouraging” words even when you flat out tell them to stop. It doesn’t help, it didn’t help. It definitely just made me feel worse, because I’d just keep remembering how they said the same thing before and it didn’t happen. I understand that they meant well, but it was actually pretty hurtful.

I will note, for anyone worried, I never thought about suicide. I did think about quitting my job and living in a cave for the rest of my life, but never self-harm. But I like buying star wars action figures and drinking hot tea too much to live in a cave.

I tell you all this not for pity or to say sorry for not posting for 5 months or however long it’s been (in fact, I’m not sorry at all for not posting), but because it’s important to talk about these things because it’s normal to fail and it’s normal to be sad. And because it really put a damper on my sewing, something that makes me happy. When what little motivation you have for life is being forced into studying for a second time for the biggest test of your career and you’re already feeling hopeless, there just isn’t much room for inserting zippers or sewing darts. But being creative is also an integral part myself, and I was sad I couldn’t do it. So very very slowly I’ve been working on a quilt. Thankfully I chose a very simple half square triangle scheme long before I was even thinking about the PE so it wasn’t very taxing to arrange and sew them together.

Quilt math and tally of how many squares I cut

295 6″ squares

I wish I had dated my original sketch because I’m pretty sure I started planning this quilt in 2015, after I finished my dad’s monk robe. I chose to do an all blue quilt, fading from white through shades of blue all the way to black, only because blue is my husband’s favorite color. But now that it’s come to embody a lot of my struggles in the last year, it’s kind of fitting that blue is the color associated with depression, i.e. “feeling blue.”

I think anyone who gets into sewing of any kind finds out pretty quickly how relaxing and meditative it is. To not think about what else is going on in the world or around you, just focus on arranging bits of fabric, sewing seams, trimming corners, pressing allowances, it’s a great reprieve from bad thoughts. I would say that quilting and embroidering (the two things I was able to do) are the best when you’re really depressed because it was daunting to me to try to think through the sequential steps involved in making a dress, even though normally that is easy peasy for me. But quilting is just a few steps repeated over and over again. Cut, sew, press. Cut, sew, press. Or because I’m an obsessive organizer: cut, cut, cut, sew, sew, sew, press, press, press (and then sewing and pressing on repeat until the quilt is together).

I pinned all the squares to an old sheet so I could arrange them easily

The cats were always “helping” by sitting on the quilt or pulling pins out

I retook the PE exam last Friday. Results won’t be posted for 6 to 8 weeks. My quilt is not done, but I have a complete top. I just need to make a backing, baste it all together, quilt, and bind it. So maybe in another year or two I’ll have a finished object to show off, but for now, this feels like an accomplishment.


21 Comments leave one →
  1. Bia permalink
    April 24, 2017 12:26 pm

    Heart felt and frank. Stern, but fair – as Pedro would say. Sorry we sent you a gillion encouraging postcards!

  2. April 24, 2017 1:50 pm

    I’ve been having difficulty working on my creative projects too lately (because of LIFE) and so haven’t blogged. I’m glad working on the quilt has helped you. I started a quilt too because dressmaking became too complicated!! I still haven’t finished it, but I will one day. Glad to hear from you.

    • May 6, 2017 6:59 am

      Yup, quilts are like a background project! always there for you to fall back on

  3. April 24, 2017 2:06 pm

    I don’t know what to say about the PE that will be helpful. Sending my heartfelt best wishes. It reminds me that I had a very embarrassing situation after finishing my doctoral coursework and sitting for my oral exam. What I studied for the oral exam was not what they wanted to know, and I got pitying looks from the profs during the two hour exam. Afterward my major professor said they knew I could do the research, so there was no point in dwelling on my poor oral exam performance. I finished my research and my dissertation and had a very successful defense meeting. Rebound! You can do it!

    Also, the quilt is really lovely!

    • May 6, 2017 7:01 am

      That’s one of the major fears with such large, all encompassing tests – that you studied the wrong stuff. Glad your professor was understanding

  4. April 24, 2017 3:56 pm

    Good luck with your exam results. I’m sorry you didn’t pass first time. Life can be s**t. The quilt is Gorgeous, live the colour transitions.

  5. Jackie Ries permalink
    April 24, 2017 4:29 pm

    As a schoolteacher, I can tell you that reading those exams are difficult. Tension and worry will add to that difficulty. Now that you’ve taken the exam again, I hope that it turns out well for you. Your quilting activity was a wonderful way of working through your frustrations. The quilt is beautiful. Let’s hope that both the exam and the quilt finish with positive results!

  6. April 25, 2017 6:32 am

    I’m so sorry this happened, Molly. Sometimes life really sucks, and all you can do is keep pushing forward. I haven’t taken the PE, but I remember taking the FE (or whatever it’s called now) in college, and it was a lot harder than I was expecting. I agree with Brenda above that getting a PhD (and just progressing in your career in general) is extremely humbling. Just when you think you’re doing well, you realize that there are 100 people who are way better than you are. The further along you get, the more public your failures become. I try to remind myself of all the things I know I’m good at, and acknowledge my weaknesses and actively try to work on them. It’s not easy, especially when you don’t make much progress despite a lot of effort. Just last week I finally said out loud that I’m doing my best, and it’s still not good enough. That’s a really tough pill to swallow.

    Hang in there, and best of luck with your second round of results. I agree with the others that the quilt is beautiful, and hopefully sewing can continue to distract you a bit from work and stress. I know it does for me. 🙂

    • May 6, 2017 7:03 am

      Exactly, that’s the worst when you really are doing your best, and your best might even be good, but it’s still not good enough. Thankfully now that the test is over sewing has come back with a vengeance.

  7. April 26, 2017 1:59 am

    Oh Molly, sending you Internet hugs. I Think I know something of what you feel – I had a similar experience in my own career – but life went on and eventually I felt better about it. I really hope it’s the right result this time.

    • May 6, 2017 7:06 am

      Thank you! That is true that eventually this all won’t seem so bad, it’s just so hard to remember than in the moment. But it will get better

  8. April 26, 2017 9:35 am

    I know too well the pain of knowing the subject, or being able to DO the tasks, but failing the formal testing. I’m wishing you good results this round!

    I love your quilt top!

    • May 6, 2017 7:07 am

      Yes, it’s too bad it’s such an inflexible test because it really didn’t have a whole lot in common with what I do on a regular basis. Thank you!

  9. April 29, 2017 1:27 pm

    Molly, thanks for sharing how horrible things have been for you lately! The setbacks life sends our way are demoralizing, horrible and hard to get over, regardless of peoples’ ‘encouragements’, which, imho, generally make things worse, not better. That said, fingers crossed for you!

    And holy moly! That quilt is gorgeous.

  10. Eva permalink
    May 4, 2017 1:39 pm

    What a beautiful quilt! And with such a beautiful thought and love behind the choice of color. Your husband is a lucky guy! I’m sorry however that the color has gotten a darker meaning :°-(

    I’m keeping my fingers crossed (or holding my thumb, as we say in Sweden) that you will pass the exam you took a few weeks ago. However that ends, you will of course still (as after the exam before) be equally good at your job as you were before you took the exam and got the results. I personally think that – apart from feeling insecure, sad and perhaps not being able to focus as you normally would – you probably became an even better engineer after that awful exam. If you would have passed without a single error the exam would have been too easy for you and you wouldn’t have learned anything. I think that we learn the most when we do things that are a bit too hard for us – even though the failures can be awfully painful (been there, done that).

    Thank you for an inspiring blog!

  11. May 9, 2017 6:16 am

    Goodluck with your results! These exams don’t mean you are a good engineer vs bad engineer. All they want to know is how good are you in giving the test.

    People study for such certification exams in 2 ways. 1. Read the course material top to bottom and understand to problem solve and better themselves. 2. Read how to give the exam, work on practice tests and that’s pretty much it. Easy to clear exam in the latter method but they won’t know much.


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