Fish Sticks: Reflecting On Loss

In an ongoing series, today’s post is authored by Ross Kett, an MSc Math candidate in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Guelph. Ross’ research has involved the development of a system of differential equations to better understand the population dynamics of a species of freshwater fish that are being managed by two very different management strategies.

Over the winter break, just as Ross was about to submit his draft thesis to me for editing and comments, he came face to face with something that we all have probably experienced. But I’ll let him tell you about that.

I consider myself a meticulous, but, slow worker. I love getting things right no matter how painfully obtuse that may be, especially, in certain situations. So picture now a man plunking away at his thesis, on well, let’s say: mathematics, fish, economics, and social norms1.  Thanks to my awesome supervisor, Dr Daniel Gillis, I’ve had a chance to explore and figure out most of what I am doing at my own leisure – from narrowing down a gigantic domain of research to the analysis of the minute details of the particular model I’ve run with.

Those who know me now probably see a person who’s a bit confused, and maybe a bit eccentric, in a normal kind of way (see what I mean); anything but competitive. However, when I was a wee cabbage, my wonderful parents inspired in me a fiery competitor. While I did enter tournaments and competitions for things like soccer, chess, graphic design, and video games, my sport of passion was hockey.

Part of being a competitor, in hockey, in life, and in academics, is proving yourself. For team sports like hockey, it usually comes down to a point where you enter into a selection process to get onto better teams, otherwise known as try-outs.

Try-outs are fun, in a sadistic way. You need to push yourself as hard as you possibly can, and then some. I had times where I was literally knocked out from hits or passed out from hyperventilation (twice, scary as heck). At most times this paid off; those that notice hard work and smart work latch on. I was not the best player by any means, but I could stand my own, and I was proud of that. I made the AA team twice in a row2. But it wasn’t all success.

Losing is a natural part of life – although I doubt anyone, in particular, enjoys losing. It happens for reasons that can be in your control or completely outside of your reach. Questioning the notion that you aren’t going to win seems absurd; you’re invincible, young, talented. Sure, you’ve lost pens and pencils before; and, maybe a few heated games of Mario Kart, but, you can brush that off easily. The exact notion of really losing seems to evade you for some time…

I was in the final stage of my thesis. I had just completed my last chapter (barring edits) and handed it off to Dr Gillis over the Christmas break. Coming out of the stupor of staring at this piece of text and mathematics for so long was tiring. As of then, I only had some discussion to write and a bit of tidy work, so I was taking my time, and re-reading the basis of my extended work.

My master’s project involves a lot of programming on top of theory-based work, so I was skimming through the original code that would later be extended by my own hands. Then, something caught my eye in an equation. I stared at it for a second, then back at my code – alright I had accounted for what my eyes had just seen here. Everything is ok. I opened my thesis .pdf and looked for that same equation in math words instead of code – it wasn’t there. The piece of math I had placed into my code was not in my thesis, anywhere. Normally, I would not have cared much, after all, it could be just a small typo. It was not. Skipping any particulars, this tiny little piece of mathematics had not been included in any section of my written work. The chapter I had just spent so much time on was ruined, not a single piece was recoverable, because, of course, this small piece of math changed everything.

I was entering my third set of tryouts for this AA team. A thing to note – you need to try out for a team each year, it’s not a one-and-done deal. Proving oneself is a constant process. For final cuts, you go one-on-one with the coach and his scouts. It was my turn; I left the room as quickly as I had entered it. They sat me down and all the coach had to say was: you’re cut. No explanation, nothing. My chances of making this team were gone. I was crushed. My career was over.

I panicked, I messaged a few friends and told them what I had found in my thesis. I got some consoling, but the fact of the matter was: I needed to redo a whole lot of stuff. I let this sink in for a bit, and that stress filled me up, to the brim.

A few days later, we had the try-outs for the A team. I made it, easily, and I would, for the next 14 years of my life play with that team, each year. At first, it was hard, I could not stand being on this lower-level team. After all, only those in AAA and AA ever really made it anywhere. Though, after playing with the same teammates over time, it grew on me, and that team became something I loved, so much so that I never tried out for a higher level team again. My hockey team was objectively one of the best in the city. By my last year, the AA team I had tried out for had folded, they were consistently losing in their division. My team did so well that year, our whole team was invited out for Junior tryouts.

Panicked as I was you might ask, did I give up? No, hell no. I’ve redone most of what I needed to and I am now in the process of finishing up the, once again, painstaking details of my analysis, new math in hand.

In both of these cases I faced huge losses, and although this was quite a melodramatic, self-centered piece of writing, I hope that those reading feel inspired to keep going. In whatever you do, be it education, sports, whatever, take those losses. It can crush you and kill your spirit, but if you don’t bounce back, that will be the truest form of a loss. Nothing will ever prepare you for something you don’t expect, so what does it hurt to keep going?

As for the offer to try out for the juniors, I turned it down, after all, I was off to University.

1 Details, in this case, do not matter as much as the message.

2 For a fun sense of perspective, it kinda goes like: house league, select, regional, (F-A), AA, AAA, Junior B, Junior A.

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