Failure is not an option. Why not? Who says so?
The pressure to succeed and never fail has become so ingrained in society that its effects have caused many students to suffer stress-related illnesses, and psychological distress. Failing has taken on such a stigma that just the thought of it can turn the most confident student into an insecure bundle of nerves.
I see the effects that the pressure of failing has on students when they return to college for the spring term. Many students return to the new semester different people. Those smiling faces I saw in the Fall look frazzled and stressed. For the first time, many students return to college having received lower grades then expected. Some even failed a class. They return to college feeling somewhat defeated and many question their self-worth and their ability to succeed. Their self-efficacy has been diminished by the brow beating received from family members, or they have spent the holiday break beating themselves up over the idea of "not being good enough."
When did failing become such a devastating life event that students spiral into deep depression, become different people, or hurt themselves or others? Why has failing become such a taboo that it can cause a seismic shift in thinking that makes students question their own sense of self and existence? The pressure to succeed has always been there, but have we allowed the idea of success to become too important?
Realistically, failing, whether in academia or life in general, has never been a pleasant experience. However, we are now raising a generation of students who have been conditioned by family, peers and society to believe that failing is not an option. Failing, once an acceptable part of the learning process, has now become taboo, a scarlet letter that you will be forced to live with forever.
I can't tell you when the stigma of failing became so prominent. Nor can I tell you why. I can suggest that many students grew up in a world where everyone was a winner -- everyone got a ribbon or trophy. No one lost or failed. Maybe the stigma of failing has to do with students being over-parented and protected. I don't know, and it really doesn't matter at this point.
What I do know is that failing is normal and it needs to be embraced as such. We need to let students experience it. We need to accept that failing does not mean that you are a failure. It simply means that something happened in such a way that you didn't get the expected outcome you anticipated. It's that simple. Nothing more, nothing less.
I say "It's that simple" with a caveat. If you don't try, haven't made an effort, and take a laissez-faire attitude toward the issue at hand, then failure does indicate a larger problem and there should be attention paid to it. You either weren't really interested in succeeding, didn't have the skill set needed to succeed, or maybe you were just lazy. If this is the case, then parents have every right to be upset and students should be critical of themselves. In these cases, I tell students to pull it together and get focused. Seek out the help they need and put together a plan to succeed.
Changing the way we view and feel about failure isn't easy. It's taken a long time to get us to where we are. Hopefully, the points below will help you start to reframe the concept of failure and start the change.
Separate the failure from your "self."
Failure is a symptom of something else -- it is not you. Maybe the "something else" is lack of time management, personal skills or the genetic makeup of what your body allows you to do. Maybe you didn't learn the right skills. Maybe you put too much pressure on yourself to compete with others and the stress limits your performance. Look beyond the immediate results to understand what's behind the failure.
Own your failures.
They are yours. You can dwell on it and blame everyone else, but it is your failure. Befriend it and use it to gather information about how to be more successful or what steps to take next time.
Create a new relationship with the word "failure."
When we think of the word "failure" our minds have learned to insert negative thoughts like stupid, loser, bad, no good, useless, less than, wrong, idiot, disappointment, etc. We have given the word "failure" too much power. Take back that power and replace negative self-talk with words like learning, useful, self-discovery, gratitude and rewarding. By reframing the way you relate to the word you will be able to distance yourself from the negative emotions that our mind wants us to accept.
Don't let others use your failure to make you feel bad about yourself.
There is a lot of transference from parents and peers when you fail at something. They push their own relationship with failure onto you. We tend to get wrapped up in the baggage they carry about failure and let it define how we feel about ourselves. When you own your failure and develop your own relationship with it you tend to be less sensitive to what others have to say about it.
The fear of failure is something we've created in our minds. If you embrace the idea that you will fail from time to time it won't be such a traumatic event when it happens.
Life is full of success and failures. When we acknowledge that failure is an option, we help tip the scales to a more balanced life. Be kind to yourself.
Dr. Brian Harke is currently the Dean of Students at the University of Southern California, School of Cinematic Arts. His full bio and other articles can be found at www.brianharke.com