A long time ago, I dropped out of an Organic Chemistry degree.
I was in the first year. Barely a few months in. There was a practical. Thursday afternoon, practical. We had the job of making an organic compound. It was a solid, granular, crystalline product. We were given two weeks to synthesise it from phenetole and other compounds.
Not only were we to synthesise it - we had to purify the stuff and weigh it, check its purity after repeated extractions and crystallisations.
So after a week and a half, I had all of this stuff together in a conical flask, ready to begin the process of making the crystalline solid, when the KLUTZ at the bench next to me knocked my conical flask into the sink.
I just stood there, watching as one and a half weeks’ work drained away down the sink, and the stricken face of the student. I remember slowly, methodically, collecting each glass piece as the teacher watched, horrified. For safety’s sake, each glass piece went into a sharps bin that the teacher supplied me. I silently cleaned up the mess on the bench, packed all my gear away, checked that the student on the other side of me was all right - she was numb with shock - wrote something my my lab book, handed in my lab book, and just left the lab with the whole lab full of first year students staring at me.
About the only thing I said was “Are you all right?” to the innocent student to my right. Each lab experiment I made began with "Experiment began,” date, time by the laboratory clock over the door, “Session ended,” same date/time notation , and “Experiment continued,” same date/time notation. I noted the apparatus used, noted the clearing away of the apparatus at the end of each session, even the room temp during each session. I used to be meticulous like that.
That day’s note in the lab book read “Experiment could not be completed due to mishap,” followed by “Experiment ended,” date, time. Signed.
I never went back to that lab, or to that course, again.
Eventually, in 1995, I wound up doing a Computer Studies course and I got a BSc (Hons) 2:1. But I recently found myself wondering about that lab incident, and how it just utterly, totally, changed my life.
I got my first taste of what it was like being an adult - that you could put your heart and soul into a project, and get nothing, NOTHING, to show for it as a result.
It took me a long time after that to find my feet, to find my purpose - and I have been following my purpose since. But thanks to that KLUTZ next to me, whose name I cannot even remember now, I have reminded myself always to pursue only those goals where I would have, at the end, something to show for it, even if the only thing was one person smiling.
And I have always remembered that lesson that if you are faced with a situation where something you have been working so hard on turns out to be a waste of your time, you can still quietly wash your hands of it, turn and walk away, taking your dignity with you. If nothing else, you can at least leave with that.