by ERIK HOVLAND
Failure is a part of everyone’s life. For some of us, it’s most of our life. But the amount and degree of failure is not what matters. In the end, it’s how you respond to that failure that matters.
In 2016, the world suffered a great loss. My promising career as a bench-warming second string free safety on my high school football team had just been brought to a screeching halt. Well, it wasn’t so much my career being brought to a halt as it was my entire body, courtesy of a 250-pound high school sophomore, who celebrated his victory by toppling onto my arm, breaking it instantly. It quickly became apparent that I would no longer be able to play football for at least the remainder of the season. This truly devastated the rest of the team—who responded by replacing me immediately.
But like I said, it’s not the failure that matters. It’s how you respond to it—and my response was joining the debate team. Like they always say, “Sticks, stones, and 250-pound sophomores may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” If you aren’t familiar with high school debate teams, picture a group of incredibly insufferable people howling incoherently at each other over something that doesn’t matter. I’d fit right in.
Granted, I had a lot to learn. On my first day my coach walked up and slapped a massive stack of paper down on the table in front of me.
“Here’s the brief on the new topic. It’s about nuclear power. Start reading.”
I was horrified. “That’s like 200 pages!”
My complaint was met with little more than a wry chuckle. “More like 327. Better get started.”
As I quickly learned, debate is voluntary homework. It requires the participants to research and prepare a case to argue both sides of a contentious issue. It’s a complicated process of creating solid arguments that you must also be prepared to counter in a challenging game of intellectual rock paper scissors. Only the most inspiring rhetoric and powerful evidence will prevail. And when you’re an idiot, like me, the difficulty multiplies. But eventually, I managed to get my feet under me, and with my freshly-minted cases, I was on my way to my first debate tournament.
My confidence fled the day of the first tournament. Waddling down foreign hallways in an ill-fitting suit, searching desperately for the tournament room, did not feel like the glorious comeback I had imagined. I had been assigned the affirmative side of the debate, arguing in favor of the mass adoption of nuclear power. Alas, it was far too late for cowardice. I gathered the few scraps of courage within my soul and entered the room.
I was immediately met by the piercing stare of my opponent. It seemed as though she had known I would enter at that exact moment. That look in her eyes—pure, undiluted hatred, so intense it stopped me dead in my tracks. A tense moment passed before her hateful glare vanished, replaced with an unreadable mask as her focus shifted to the large stack of paper in front of her.
Wordlessly, I crept to the table next to her to begin setting up my case, stealing looks to try to gather information. It was not good news. She wore a full suit, far nicer than mine, and more importantly, it actually fit. Her hair was pulled back so tightly it looked like she had glued it down to her scalp. She was a career politician, prepared for the greatest debate of her life; I was two kids stacked on top of each other in a trench coat, lost while sneaking into a movie theater. She stared intensely down at her case, as if she was trying to scare it into being a more effective argument. Every movement she made was precise, calculated, robotic.
Great, I thought. My first debate round, ever, and they matched me up against the damn Terminator. Her case file was twice the size of mine. She had a plastic tub bursting with evidence. Her timer for her speeches had double the number of buttons mine did.
After about a minute, the tension became too much for me. I had to do something before I lost my competitive nerve. I didn't know if it was normal in the debate world to act cordial with someone you knew you were about to argue, but since that’s what my family always does at Thanksgiving, I figured it was worth a try. I introduced myself.
“Hi, my name’s Erik. Nice to meet you.” I extended a hand in greeting.
She looked shocked. Had I broken an unspoken rule?
“I’m Katie.” She shook my hand hesitantly, expecting it to explode at any minute.
I needed to defuse the situation. “I, uh…like your timer. It’s got a lot of buttons.” Expertly done, I thought. Surely there could be no awkwardness now.
“Have you done this before?”
“Once or twice. I’m guessing you haven’t.” She eyed the 25% off sticker I had forgotten to peel from my tie.
“What gave it away?”
It seemed like once she realized that this was my first round, she became a completely different person. She actually seemed quite friendly. I began to think I may have misjudged her. Maybe she was just nervous, too. At last, my terror started to dissipate.
The judge came in shortly after, prompting me to return to my seat and prepare my first speech. Shockingly, high school debate tournaments are not the most popular extracurricular activity. Finding judges is not easy, so they’ll take anyone they can get. I do mean anyone.
I knew this going in, and yet was still surprised when the judge stopped me before my speech to ask, “So are there any, like… rules I should know about or anything?”
Not the most inspiring start, but after my opponent gave an alarmingly fast and efficient rundown of the rules, I began. At first, I stumbled meekly over the words, my nerves still getting the better of me. But as I spoke, I found myself growing more confident. I had a rock-solid case, and the more of it I revealed, the more I convinced myself. I was making great—nay, exceptional points. The judge was nodding. Nodding! I had already won. This was easy! I had found my calling! Why had I ever been worried?
I ended my speech with three minutes to spare. I had been given six minutes to present; this meant I had read at twice the speed I had intended, likely rendering much of it completely indecipherable. Yet, it felt like the very concept of time had simply faltered before the strength of my argumentation.
Next came the first cross examination, where Katie would ask questions about my case to try to reveal weaknesses. This was the moment I had been dreading, but I was actually feeling fairly optimistic. After my triumphant first speech I felt like an intellectual giant, and Katie and I had gotten along quite well previously, so I was confident that it couldn’t possibly be that bad.
It was, in fact, worse.
From the moment her timer started, it was already over. The friendly smile plastered on her face vanished, and she was the merciless robot once again. For the next three minutes I endured a barrage of questions.
“Are you aware that for your second contention, subpoint 2A, you cited the 2013 Krieger report that was subsequently deemed to have an insufficient sample size to support its conclusions?”
“Well… I, uh…”
“How can you rationalize using the criterion of utilitarianism to uphold the value of justice, when utilitarianism is perfectly comfortable flying in the face of what is just, in favor of what is perceived as the maximal good?”
“According to your own stated values, would it not be our moral obligation to invest in existing technologies that have been demonstrated to be entirely safe rather than those that have been shown to pose significant risks to human life in the past?”
It was the longest three minutes I have ever experienced. Halfway through I looked desperately to the judge for help. There was none to be found. A mix of horror and fascination played upon his face as if he were witnessing a train hitting a car parked on the tracks. All he could do was watch me be reduced to rubble, haphazardly strewn across the earth. I returned to my seat, devastated. Dejected. A failure.
But it’s about how you respond to it. Unfortunately, the only way I could respond in this case was to listen quietly for seven minutes while she flawlessly dismantled my entire case. I wasn’t sure what exactly to look for in the face of the judge to gauge how I was doing, but I was fairly certain that pure pity is not the emotion one strives to inspire.
Needless to say, the rest of the round went much the same. By the end I was reduced to babbling, incoherent, desperate responses to points I wasn’t even equipped to fully comprehend. When, at last, it was over, I sat stunned until Katie walked up to me. She extended a hand just as I had done before the round. Her vice-like grip crushed the last shred of self-respect I had managed to cling to. She then disappeared, without saying a word.
The judge was in a hurry to leave. He was packed and headed for the door like he was fleeing an active crime scene. Just before exiting, he stopped and looked back at me.
“Are you alright?” he asked, genuine concern writ large upon his face.
A choked “No” was all I could manage in reply.
“Yeah… that was really brutal, man.” With that, he was gone.
But it’s not about the failure, it’s about how you respond to it. And I responded by dedicating myself to debate. I spent countless hours honing my cases, rhetoric, and argumentation skills into a well-oiled machine, ready to challenge any idea with rigorous logic and skepticism. In other words, I became entirely unbearable to everyone around me. This was a small price to pay to avoid reliving the butchering that was my first round.
It paid off. My senior year, I found myself in the final round of the State Championship. This was my shot at redemption, at victory. Every second of the past several years had led me to this moment. And my opponent? None other than Katie.
At first, I was afraid—petrified, even. But I was no longer the bright-eyed young lad that she had humiliated and destroyed so easily. So, I gathered my resolve, and with both of our teams watching us, we started the round.
And you know what I learned? I learned that no matter how you might fail, how completely and utterly you may embarrass yourself, if you respond to it in just the right way—you may do the exact same fucking thing again, but this time with a much bigger audience.
ERIK HOVLAND enjoys making others laugh with his writing and drawings. As a fourth-year student, Erik studies Environmental Design, with an emphasis on Architecture, at CU Boulder.
MISHAAL JAN graduated from CU Boulder with a BA in Astrophysics in 2020. Mishaal recently moved to Madison, Wisconsin, and works for Epic Systems. Mishaal’s time studying abroad in London, Rome, and Madrid inspired their photography.