This topic, I find, to be one of the most difficult to tackle with students (or with anyone, for that matter). It’s hard to do as a teacher, when you care about your students, their success, wellbeing, growth, and future. It’s even harder for me as an older brother, as I want nothing more than for my brothers to have “the life that I never did.” Even with that fraternal bond, I concede that it must be even more daunting for parents. We don’t want to see those that we care about fail, and anguish over that failure, only then to experience another failure down the road, and more anguish. Thus, we have all pondered: What should we do to help those that we care about to be successful (or not fail)?
Failure is a part of life. A harsh statement? Perhaps, but reality often is harsh for a person to confront, particularly when either it does not align to what we want our reality to be, or at least our perception of it.
Here’s another reality: Success is a part of life. Was I a bit blasé just now? Should I have set up that statement with a bit of climatic, or didactic, writing?
They are both axioms of life, so I accept them as both being true.
Let me ask the real question: What is the connection between success and failure? Or, put through a narrower lens, how does one go from a failure and find a path to a success?
The path starts with a change in mindset. When failure occurs, we naturally experience frustration, anger, annoyance, denial, and even a bit of despair. Some may blame others, or lash out, and even consign themselves to continue to fail, and proclaim excuses like, “I’m just not good at [fill in the blank]!” It’s harder for students, since they are still learning how to mitigate experiencing those natural emotions.
Consider this view of reality: The failure has happened. That’s it. We cannot rewind the clock, go backwards in time, or re-live the events (except in our minds). So what do we do?
- We get up off of the floor. The view above is valid: The failure has happened. There is nothing that can be done to change that fact, to undo that which has been done. While feeling the natural progression of emotion is healthy, important, and valuable, we need to forgive ourselves, acknowledge what has happened, and resolve ourselves to ameliorate our situation. By way of an academic example, a failure could be a poor exam score. Rather than feeling defeated, or a failure, or that the course is impossible and we’ll never be successful, resolve to feel that it was just one bad exam, which we all have had (present company included), that it does not mean that the class is impossible or that we are terrible students, and we will do better on the next exam and get back on track.
- We learn from the experience. Any successful person worth their salt is reflective. They strive to do better, even if the job that was done was a good one. No one is perfect, and there is always something that can be improved upon. We will continue to avoid success if we do not reflect on all of our efforts, the successful and the disastrous, and examine what worked, and what can improve that we did. Using our example, for the poor exam grade, ask:
- How did I study? Did I give myself enough time, or did I rush at the end?
- Was there some techniques that I used that helped prevent a lower grade, or answer a question I thought that I would not be able to?
- Did I have all of my questions answered before I took the exam?
- Did I read all of the questions correctly, and made sure to answer that which I was asked?
- Should I have practiced more problems, especially for steps?
- Did I understand all of the vocabulary that was used?
- Did I pace myself well during the exam?
- Was I relaxed and focused during the exam?
- Did I understand what exactly I would be examined on?
- We speak with others about our reflections and ideas, and ask for suggestions to consider. This is an especially powerful step, and often overlooked because a not-so-successful experience is not something that we naturally want to share with the public en masse. Speak with people that you trust – teachers, a tutor, parents, your best friend, or that older brother who has been around the block a couple of times. Let them ask questions, so that they understand what you are thinking. Really listen to their thoughts and suggestions. You may not adopt each one, and even summarily reject some of the ideas, but you may find some good thoughts that you will want to try out. Ultimately, you are the final arbiter of what you do, regardless of another person’s position – make sure that you make informed decisions, as this is all for your benefit, and yours alone, so pride or close-minded will get you no where.
- We develop an action plan. I am not simply advocating things we would do differently. The action plan should contain things we want to keep! It is important that the changes are not wholesale: they need to be manageable, very specific, and implementable. I emphasize those three characteristics of a plan. The point of an action plan is to get us back on a path to success; we do not need more failure that we brought upon ourselves because we made a sweeping and impossible action plan, setting standards and expectations beyond reason.
- We try out our action plan, refining it as we go along, and continue discussing our thoughts with people we trust. Situations change, material changes, and even our plan may be more or less than what we need to be successful. Remember – successful people consistently reflect, and refine out of that reflection!
Any failure need not define you or your situation. Failure, in actuality, is a learning experience, so that we can successful. Those that use the experience to learn and grow invariably become the most successful, and those failures become wonderful stories to share (with my younger brothers and students, in my case!)