Sooner or later you will fail at something in your life, it’s going to happen! It’s very likely that you have already failed at something. And then there’s the negative feelings and emotions that can manifest and magnify from a failure, which can be crippling. Even the anticipation of failure can be extremely upsetting and distracting. The stigma associated with failure permeates throughout many cultures and societies across the planet; it happens everywhere, and it happens to everyone. When somebody experiences a failure, they can decide to hide it from others in an attempt to try and forget about it or share the failure to make themselves feel better. But why are we so afraid of failure? Is it because we care about how others will perceive us? Are we worried about letting our parents or friends down?
Gifted individuals often take failure very hard, particularly if they fail at something that they can otherwise perform to a high standard. Many gifted individuals tend to be academically excellent in school, achieving high grades in many subject areas. When they attend university, they are likely to encounter an academic failure at some point in their degree pathway, but often feel unprepared and lack the resilience to deal with it. So how should we deal with failure? Especially if we don’t have a lot of experience with it? And how can we embrace failure to help us?
I say, give failure a thumbs up (two if you’re feeling generous!)! Learning to embrace failure, not to get worked up about failing, and learning from mistakes can help prepare us in so many useful and productive ways. It can give us a new and unexpected direction, or provide us with the impetus to become tenacious and resilient.
When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade!
Many of my friends and colleagues often say I’m one of the most enthusiastic and positive people they have ever come across, and then say things like “things always go right for you, you’re so lucky” blah blah blah blah blah… I’m sure people mean well when they make comments like these, however, I can tell you now this is not the reality! When I fail at something, or something doesn’t go well I try and see if there is any way I can turn it into a positive experience. As a person, I tend to focus more on the positive aspects of my life and try not to dwell on things that I may have failed or got wrong. It’s definitely not good to ignore your failures, however I personally don’t feel the need to dwell on things that go wrong or get in the dumps about things I’ve failed. I try my best to learn from my mistakes, and try not to repeat them, i.e. I want to learn where I went wrong, which can help me to learn and improve in the future.
One example I’d like to share is when I apply for a new job. Applying to study at university can be tough and extremely competitive (think Oxford or Cambridge University), however applying to work at a university is definitely a step higher! I have applied for numerous positions and have had pushbacks and failures at multiple times in my life. Some of the positions I’ve applied for have been jobs I really wanted! However, I have tried to learn from these experiences, especially if I have been shortlisted then not offered the job. In this specific example, I tell myself several things to help soften the blow and to move on. There are often other circumstances and reasons to explain why you didn’t get what you wanted and, in my case, this could be that the other candidates had more experience than I did or that the prospective employers were looking for somebody with a slightly different skills set. I’ve also asked prospective employers for feedback on interviews I have presented in but not been successful, to help prepare and learn for the future. How we handle failure is so important, and the experience can help to prepare us to deal with them in the future and also alleviate anxiety when we encounter them.
Failure Can Give Us Direction
Failing at something can also guide us and give direction in our lives. It can be useful in telling us if we want to continue with something or help us to come to the realisation that it’s time to move on and choose another path. Deciding that something isn’t for you (a career or degree pathway for example), is just as important as being sure about the right direction to follow.
Several years ago, whilst I was based in Birmingham in the UK, I used to support students (between ages 16-18) doing ‘A’ Levels in the sciences; mostly biology and chemistry. Many of these students had aspirations of going into medicine or dentistry, requiring the highest grades possible across all their subjects. One student I helped to support was having a hard time with chemistry, she put so much effort in, tirelessly trying to make sure her calculations were correct, that she had remembered to put the correct units down, and that her drawings of the various types of electron movement between molecules were correct. After she had sat her exams, her final result for chemistry was an E grade (the lowest grade possible). I personally felt like I had failed her and let her down, however, she relayed her thanks and gratitude for my support and concluded that chemistry was not the right path for her. She did however achieve A grades in business and other subjects she was studying. So, failure, for her, was an extremely useful indicator that chemistry probably wasn’t the best pathway for her to follow.
One of the most important life lessons failure can teach us is resilience, particularly living in a post COVID world. Resilience can help us to pick ourselves up again and carry on, looking for that next opportunity, or telling ourselves that we’ll do better next time and try not to make the same mistakes. I think there are times however, when we need to realize it’s okay to give up and try out something different. I hope you can give your next failure two thumbs up and try to learn as much as possible from it, for the future!
About the Author: Professor Rhys Christopher Jones is the Associate Dean of Education at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, at the University of Surrey. Prior to this, he was based in the Department of Statistics at the University of Auckland. Over his career he has taught a variety of subjects, at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, which include statistics, quantitative methods, and mathematics for science. He has also taught a variety of science-based subjects in FE colleges, which include GCSE, BTEC, Access and A levels. His primary research contributions are in the areas of curriculum development and the role of context in statistics education. Rhys’s research interests also focus on mathematical and statistical anxiety, helping to inform strategies to engage and motivate people in these subjects. Rhys is a trustee of Potential Plus UK.
This article was originally published in the magazine of the NZ Association of Gifted Children