by Hung Hoang
Most of the people I interact with regularly know that I have a knack for ”unusual“ questions. If the unusualness reaches an alarming level, they often ask, “Is it for Polykum?“ From ideas for editorial meetings to inspirations for articles, the people around me have been of great help. However, I haven‘t been too successful with what I wanted to write for this article: second chances. Except for ”a second chance is good” and ”being able to retake your failed exam at ETH is a second chance“, I haven‘t had the much-anticipated revelation.
Why Wasn’t Once Enough?
What is so difficult to say about second chances? I believe they are not rare. As we pursue an endeavour, sometimes someone or something pulls the plug. We may then let go and move on, or we may look for another try. Perhaps the issue is that it‘s not easy to talk about second chances without talking about first chances and the likely presence of failure and rejection. It‘s difficult to admit that we made a mistake, that we were not wanted, that we were not good enough. Perhaps it‘s hard to entertain the thought of second chances, because what-ifs can be unpleasant. Perhaps it‘s painful to face the possibility that we may fall short again as we did before.
A Repellent of Regret
For a long time, I refused to watch ”Big Bang Theory“. It has the quirky kind of jokes that I‘d much appreciate. But it reminded me too much of a life that I could have had. Having studied maths quite extensively in high school, I decided to pursue accounting at university. At the time, the career prospect of a maths degree was teaching and research, and I didn‘t want that. Still, over the year, I often looked back at the path not taken and wondered if I made a mistake. That path seemed further and further away, as I went through four years of a business degree and five years of chartered accountancy. However, now I‘m doing exactly what I hated, teaching and research, and I‘m lovin‘ it. Certainly, the journey hasn‘t been easy. Much waiting. Many rejections. Lots to catch up on. But I‘m grateful for many people who believe in me and have given me a chance. A second chance at mathematics.
What Lies Beyond Risk?
Through the journey, I‘ve learnt two things. Firstly, before someone gives us a second chance, we usually need to give it to ourselves first. Most of the times, doors only open when we come knocking. Secondly, I‘ve been on countless waitlists. It‘s understandable but nonetheless demoralising to know that I‘m often not among the first choice of others. However, when I think about it, that means I aim for something just out of my reach. Not too far away to guarantee an instant rejection. Just barely. Sure, many times I don‘t get it. But when I do, I achieve something that is on the tail-end of the curve, something that is above my current level. Certainly, putting all my eggs in the risky basket is not a good strategy. But putting some can lead to a pleasant surprise, if I can put up with all the rejections along the way.
So what can one say about second chances? Well, they are certainly good. And having another go at an exam is nice. So maybe we can remind ourselves of that when someone asks us for a second chance. We should allow ourselves this opportunity too, from time to time, even if it means that we may need to face many more failures along the way.
Hung Hoang, 32, is a doctoral student in Theoretical Computer Science. He wishes that life was like mathematics: you can have many tries almost without any cost, maybe except for the frustration.