In life, unlike chess, the game continues after checkmate.–Isaac Asimov
You did your best, tried your hardest, yet you failed. Things went wrong, maybe catastrophically, and now you are left to pick up the pieces. This is a normal part of the process of learning, but your first major setback, and how you respond to it, can go on to shape the rest of your academic career.
In this article, we’re going to explore failure. We’re going to explore why it happens, and, more importantly, what you do to respond to it. Our goal is to explain how you can learn from the struggles of life, and come out the other side all the stronger. Before we begin though, we should note this: failure sucks to experience. No matter how many times it happens to you, it always has its sting. We do not deny this, nor do we want to ignore the pain it causes; instead, we want to discuss how to carry on in spite of it.
What Went Wrong?
It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not weakness; that is life.–Captain Jean-Luc Picard
Once a failure has occurred, the first thing you need to do, once you have collected yourself and your thoughts, is to analyze what went wrong. This can be difficult, because many failures, as with most events, have multiple root causes. Let’s use an example to illustrate:
A student, Jane, has just failed her first major test in AP Biology, getting a score of 67/100. Several factors contributed to this:
- Jane had aced every test in her science course last year without studying, and so doesn’t have good study habits.
- Jane had a soccer practice run late the night before the test, and did not get as much sleep as she should have.
- Jane’s biology teacher is new at the school, and her tests are much harder than the previous teacher’s. The average on this test was an 86.
- Jane did not understand the material as well as she thought, but decided to attend soccer practice instead of going to the biology teacher’s office hours.
Any one of these factors could have caused a problem on its own; taken as a whole, a picture begins to emerge. There was a storm of chance, circumstance, and choice which led to Jane underperforming on her test.
The most important point in this exercise is to be honest with yourself. It is both easy and comforting to place all blame for failure on external factors, and to absolve yourself of all wrongdoing. In some cases this is true; as the quote above states, it is entirely possible to lose through no fault of your own. Life is messy however, and an honest look can turn up places where your own misteps contributed to failure.
The goal here is not to self-flagellate, nor to make you feel bad for making mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone fails. It is by diagnosing what these mistakes are that we can attempt to remedy them.
Fixing Your Own Mistakes
Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor.–Alexis Carrel
Once you have identified what went wrong, divide the causes into two categories: those which were the result of your own actions, and those which derived from factors outside of your control. We’ll deal with the second category later, now we’ll talk about fixing your own mistakes.
This can be a simple process, or a complex one, depending on the issue in question. In the example above, Jane’s lack of sleep was a simple mistake, and is simple enough to fix as well. Her difficulty studying may be more complex, because studying is a skill like any other, and one which must be learned and mastered. It may take Jane a good bit of time and effort before she is able to fully rectify this particular mistake.
When setting out to correct your own mistakes, don’t be afraid to ask for help. You are still in school, and there are myriad resources out there to help you on your way. Jane’s biology teacher may be new, but she is likely more than happy to help Jane in preparing for the next test to come along.
Finally, don’t expect this to be an overnight process. Growing and improving is a long process, often one with many failures, grand and small, along the way. You may fix one mistake only to make new and exciting mistakes later on. This is normal, and these setbacks are a key part of the learning process. We know that this can be discouraging, but know that you are learning and improving all the while.
Making Your Own Luck
I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.–Thomas Jefferson
Many times failure does come down to luck, and the vicissitudes of fate and circumstance. In some respects, this is inevitable; there are always circumstances outside of your control, and chance may always throw something in your path.
You can, however, improve your own luck, and make chance more likely to turn in your favor. We realize that some of this advice is cliche, but that does not make it less accurate; some cliches exist for a reason, and become timeworn due to truth bearing repetition.
The best way to affect your own luck is through preparation. Let’s use a different example. Jane is competing with her robotics team when a part in their bot snaps due to faulty manufacture. This is a spot of bad luck. In a spot of good luck, Jane brought extras for all the core components of the bot, and her friend John carries his tools with him; they are able to repair the damage before they need to compete again.
It is pure bad luck that their bot broke in the first place, but it is preparation which allowed them to turn the situation. Knowledge and skills, extra supplies and creative solutions can turn luck to your side. This is another lesson from failure you must learn: that luck is your own, and you can change it.
Why it is Good to Fail
The burned hand teaches best. After that, advice about fire goes to the heart.–J.R.R. Tolkein
There are several reasons that failure, no matter how painful it feels in the moment, can be helpful in the long run. We realize this is small comfort in the moment, but we hope that with reflection you can see all you have learned from the process, and revel in what you have gained through losing.
Success is wonderful, but teaches very little. All you learn from success is that the things you did well worked this time. While you can still learn and grow, it takes more work, as you must learn from the mistakes of others. Some people are better at this than others; as the quote above illustrates, most of us must make our own mistakes before a lesson really sticks.
The most important reason it is good to fail sometimes, especially in highschool, is the chance to learn from it. A small fall taken early teaches well the importance of heights, and allows you to better respect the risks you are taking, and make them in calculated fashion. A string of success often leads in two poor directions:
- First, it could lead to recklessness, as those who have never tasted the bitter dregs of failure do not know the real stakes of the risks they are taking.
- Second, it could lead to timidity, as the fear of failure and pain, only ever felt in small ways, becomes overwhelming. Those who venture nothing risk nothing, and never have to deal with their own shortcomings. In the same vein, however, they never achieve anything great.
Failure is not just good, but necessary for development. Just as skinning your knee falling from the monkey bars can give a healthy respect for heights, and a desire to explore them safely, an academic misstep in highschool can provide the push students need to buckle down, and apply their talents to the full extent.
This is because, eventually, failure is inevitable. Failing early, and learning to deal with it in a healthy manner, gives you the resources you need when failure rears its head in an environment with higher stakes, either in college or beyond.
Everyone Fails: A Case Study
We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.–John F. Kennedy
The Apollo missions by Nasa are one of humanity’s great achievements, landing on the surface of our moon for the first time. Notable among these missions is Apollo 13, the most successful failure Nasa ever had.
Apollo 13 ran into trouble due to pure bad luck; when a routine procedure caused a rupture and spark in an oxygen tank, followed by a disastrous loss of oxygen. In all respects, this was a failure. Apollo 13 could no longer complete its mission to land on the moon, and it seemed unlikely those aboard would even be able to return home alive.
Why they are known now is how Nasa handled that failure, going to incredible lengths of effort and ingenuity to bring the entire crew home alive. What we want to focus on is what happened after they were back on earth.
Nasa responded to this near-disaster by going through every phase of what failed, and determining why it happened. The oxygen tanks which ruptured were redesigned for all future missions. Additional redundancies in life support were added, and additional monitoring systems were included to make diagnosing future problems simpler. Apollo 13’s rescue was Nasa’s finest hour, and the steps they took after, and which they have taken after each disaster, allow them to continue pushing the limits of what’s possible.
He who has never failed somewhere, that man can not be great. Failure is the true test of greatness.–Herman Melville
Everyone fails. Even Nasa, authors of humanity’s greatest conquests, can and do fail. What matters, truly, is what they did next. They learned from failure, adapted and grew, and now they’re going back to the moon. Success is not a guarantee; it never is in any venture for those who dare to dream as big as the stars above, but fear of failure should not stop the dreaming nor the doing.
We hope that this article has shown you that failure is not the end, but simply another step on the path to success. It is a long road, and not always easy, but you do not need to walk it alone. If you want to hear how we can help you, and advise you on your own journey to the stars or beyond, schedule a free consultation today. We’re always happy to hear from you.