Sometimes your best effort just isn’t good enough. You can pour blood, sweat, and tears into something, only to have it fail in the end. If this hasn’t happened to you yet, it’s easy to take the possibility of it for granted: I know I did.
It was a second year philosophy course. I passed, but with a measly final grade of 58 percent. It came as a total shock: I did well on the two assigned essays, and studied every last detail of the material for the exam. Infuriated, I contemplated filing an academic appeal. On the first day of my summer break, I commuted to my school registrar, carrying with me a binder full of my essays and short assignments. When I arrived there, the woman at the front desk informed me that all I could do was email the professor to ask if there had been an error in submitting my grade.
In other words, I could do nothing.
I couldn’t be bothered in wasting my time with such an email (“there was no error, that’s just the grade you got” would have been the response). On my commute back home, I tried to forget about it. And it was then, on that subway train, that I came to a realization. I had always heard about the importance of accepting failure from self-help books and lifestyle magazines, but never fully acknowledged it. Now I had to: I was living it.
From my experience, I learned different ways of coping with failure and how to learn from it. And what I learned, you can as well.
Being bitter and shifting the blame elsewhere won’t change anything. Thinking that you’re infallible is not only unhealthy, it’s counterproductive. Be introspective: meditate on any possible mistakes you made that hindered your success. I look back and realize that I made four major mistakes in my philosophy course:
- I came in late to most tutorials (sometimes not at all), with having not read the assigned readings
- I major in English, so I’m assigned several lengthy novels which take up a lot of my reading time. I reasoned that I didn’t have enough time and only read select readings for the essay assignments
- I caught up on all the course material in the days shortly leading up to the exam – a foolish mistake
- As a result, I rarely contributed anything meaningful to tutorial discussions. This took a toll on my final grade as participation in tutorial made up 15% of the final mark
Since then, I have vowed to keep up with all the readings in any given course to the best of my ability. Recognize and correct your mistakes, because unless you do so you’ll just end up repeating them.
Feel good about your effort
Putting a lot of effort into something doesn’t alone guarantee a high grade. In my case, my initial outrage stemmed from putting in so much time and effort into studying for the exam. I soon realized that the amount of effort invested doesn’t mean anything if the final results are unsatisfactory to whoever is grading your work. The same applies even more so to jobs in the real world.
All this said, don’t let it get you down. Failure due to laziness is a legitimate source of shame, but failure in spite of trying hard isn’t. Even geniuses make mistakes. When inventing the light bulb, Thomas Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts until finally succeeding. When asked by a reporter how it felt to fail 1,000 times, Edison replied,
I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.
Don’t look at your failed attempts as efforts wasted in vain: even a wasted effort is an invaluable learning experience.
Learn to study smarter
Reconsider your study habits. If you already work hard, focus on readjusting the ways you study rather than the amount of time you spend studying. It wasn’t that I didn’t study for my exam; I laboriously did so in the two weeks leading up to it. My mistake was that I crammed in the material within that short period of time. Had I studied in small doses over the course of the entire semester, I would have received better results for both my exam and my tutorial mark. No matter how hard you work within a short amount of time, finishing things at the last minute will only cheapen the results.
Halfway through my self-assigned two-week study period, I realized that I had forgotten to check the format for my exam. Once I did, I was shocked to find out that I had wasted time studying course material that wasn’t going to be included on it. Instead of first carefully going over the exam format, I dove straight into studying. As a consequence, I wasted precious time studying material that I wasn’t going to be quizzed on. Don’t just study hard, study smart.
After you re-evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, don’t waste any more time dwelling on your failure. Move on by focusing your energy on new work at hand. Not only will this take your mind off of it, it’s also an opportunity to demonstrate that you have learned from your mistakes. So long as you actively avoid the traps that doomed your last effort, concentrating on current work will provide you with results that will more than make up for your previous failure.
Be at peace with liability
Get comfortable with the fact that the possibility of failure will always be there. Be at peace with it, because once you are, you’ll be better prepared for when it strikes again.
My pieces of advice aren’t instructions for foolproof protection against failure; no matter how religiously you follow them, there will always be that lingering chance. Nevertheless, you can still avoid it. School is like a game of cards. No matter how thorough you may think you play, there will always be a chance that you lose the game. But like any skilled player, you can still increase your chances of winning.