Failure is a tool, not a personality trait
Previous blog posts have, more or less directly, talked about how to maximise the chance that life goes your way. Today, I want to talk about what happens when things don’t go as planned.
Cambridge students are getting their results at this time of year, and high school students are bound to get theirs soon enough. I have distinct memories of getting my own results every year in that same way, anxiously refreshing my email every few seconds to see when grades would be out. In particular I remember getting my results at the end of my first year here at Cambridge: I was getting sore fingers from refreshing the web page all morning, I knew I had worked really hard that year (harder than I’d ever worked in my life up to that point) so I was feeling complacent – of course I would do well in my exams, I worked really hard so I must have done well, because if you work hard you do well… right? Finally, just as a callus was starting to form on my index finger, numbers filled the blanks on the page and my heart sank a little bit. How on earth could all my all-nighters, all my mental breakdowns translate to a measly 2:1?
A 2:1 is a really good grade, and I have since learned the hard way that the amount of effort you put into something has little to no correlation with doing well at it. But this was the first time in my life where I truly didn’t live up to my own expectations, and I was not alone in this within my cohort. For many of us at Cambridge, it is generally the case that either we had coasted through our education before our time here, or that we had learned to work hard enough that few things were truly challenging until we got to uni.
I have since “failed” (intended in the broadest sense of receiving an unexpectedly negative outcome) several more times: I didn’t get several jobs I applied for, I am still working on kicking a few harmful habits I just can’t get rid of, and I don’t really go to the gym every week as I promised myself (but can you really blame me for this last one? Those yearly memberships set you up for failure). In hindsight, it is astounding that it took me so long to trip on an obstacle for the first time, and I have since learned a few lessons from the time’s things didn’t go as expected.
The big one is to accept failure as an inevitable part of trying. Statistically speaking, the more things you attempt in life, the higher the chance that you won’t succeed at all of them. Failures are nothing but testaments to our own willingness to put ourselves out there and to do a little more than just exist.
Tied for the title of The Big One™ is the nature of failure: you are not a failure. No one is a failure. Failure is not a person, but an outcome of action: we are all people who try hard things, some of which fail – but don’t let negative outcomes define you, define yourself as the person who dares to try hard things.
The reason why you can’t afford to reduce yourself to the outcome of your attempts is because
- Said outcome doesn’t depend only (or even primarily or at all, in many cases) on you: that job you didn’t get was not offered to you not because you were a bad candidate, but because someone else out there was really good; and
- because you couldn’t have known all the variables on which the outcome was dependent without trying first: if a bad result on your exam was caused by a particular question type you didn’t prepare well for, failing that exam has served the purpose of highlighting your weakness in that area, and the next time there’ll be an exam you’ll be prepared for similar questions.
Point 2 takes me to my next insight: making mistakes, failing and not doing well is incredibly valuable because it highlights our shortcomings. Which is why it’s crucial that we don’t bury our heads in the sand or curl up in a ball of anxiety when faced with negative outcomes, but rather find out where we went wrong and seek to do better on that front at the next available opportunity. It’s not about never making a mistake: it’s about not making the same mistake twice.
The overarching message here is to be compassionate towards yourself: there’s not a single human being that will not fail during their lifetime, and the more ambitious we are, the more likely we are to fail. Use failure as an opportunity for learning, rather than as a defining personality trait.
Maria Copot, Linguistics Graduate, University of Cambridge