Upon completing my BA and MA at Ewha, I travelled and studied abroad in many different parts of the world, where I learned the foreign languages that I had barely given any attention to during my Ewha years, and I ended up specializing in the field that I had never thought I would study. Looking back, I realize that my post-Ewha years were replete with contingent moments that opened an entirely different path from the one that I had carefully mapped out beforehand. Despite all the costs that embarking on the new path may have entailed, I fully embraced the uncertain trajectory with all my passion. The choice indeed has demanded many sacrifices on my part. Yet I am glad that I wholeheartedly welcomed those contingencies in my life, rather than pushing them away, partly because I came to see the meanings of success and failure differently than before. Jim Yong Kim, a Korean-American physician and anthropologist, once advised young people to think not about what they want to be, but about what they want to do, an insight I have relied on in times of struggle. Someone – especially one in power – or an unforeseen circumstance could easily take from you your hard-earned social status. However, this is not the case for what you have done with words, actions, or artistic means. For example, novels that you wrote without the title of writer, your experiences in some of Africa’s poorest villages teaching without the title of a teacher, your records of Rohingya refugees without the title of a journalist, a heap of musical notes that you composed without the title of composer, or your laboratory experiments without the title of a scientist are all true accomplishments that no one and no circumstances can undo. Although to achieve a certain social status does indeed help you undertake a project more efficiently, having that status oftentimes requires you to compromise your principles to meet institutional demands.
I believe that the higher educational institutions of our time, especially those in Korea, should teach young people how to fail better as well as how to be winners in exceedingly competitive games, because the games they will have to play are rigged from the outset. However, we – educators – hesitate to stress enough this unfairness of our society in class, since we do not want our students to be discouraged by or indignant at the structural inequalities and absurdities. Our task, then, is to have them stay hopeful yet be resilient even when beset by unwanted circumstances. I want to urge students to cultivate the power to act their way out of situations in which status, belonging, or right is disallowed to them. Let us not conflate the nameless or the placeless with failed people. Even when profoundly unacknowledged by your contemporaries, as long as you carry on works that are meaningful to you, you are the agent of your life with the power to refuse to accommodate yourself to others’ criteria of success. When you encounter small and big ‘failures,’ I hope that you remind yourself of a powerful, inspiring line from Samuel Beckett’s novella Worstward Ho (1983): “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Apology: Ewha Voice Issue 3 published the wrong version of Professor Han’s column due to the editors’ negligence. This issue has the correct version of the previous column. We apologize for all the confusion caused to our readers and send our unqualified apologies to Professor Han.