Failure is an inevitable part of life – at least among those who are eventually successfully. As Thomas Edison once said, “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Leadership expert John Maxwell wrote an entire book on the topic: “Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success.” In fact, according to Maxwell, people who aren’t failing probably aren’t really moving forward.
However, college students don’t seem to have embraced this concept. For example, one study found that Calculus I is stopping some women students from pursuing a STEM degree. In the study, women who didn’t do as well as they expected in this introductory class are likely to doubt their ability to do well in subsequent courses, so they change majors.
In an attempt to destigmatize failure among college students, Smith College has adopted a new initiative, “Failing Well,” a program that covers such topics as perfectionism, imposter syndrome, and how to quit overthinking. Smith’s initiative is based on the theory that students who are accustomed to making excellent grades to get into such an elite school may be devastated when they receive less than stellar marks.
But, this is also a problem for students who are not at elite schools. “These days, it seems like many students can truly arrive at college without having experienced failure or setbacks, and then it can be devastating when they do, especially while away from home,” according to Rachel Annunziato, assistant professor of psychology at Fordham University. “It’s so easy to then give up on dreams, goals, and make decisions that can be costly as you try to avoid failure, not to mention begin doubting yourself.”
She applauds programs like the one at Smith. “The idea of sensitizing students to failure, making it acceptable, and even using it to move forward sounds like such a good way to bolster resiliency,” Annunziato says. “It also helps students become more independent and gain self-efficacy, which I think is a concern for this generation of college students.”
In fact, one of the three factors that increase chances of being successful in college is a growth mindset – the belief that the student is capable of learning new knowledge.
Destigmatizing Failure/Developing Resilience
Shiv Khera, author of “You Can Win: A Step-by-Step Tool for Top Achievers,” is the founder of Qualified Learning Systems, which has a client base that includes Mercedes-Benz, IBM, Motorola, Nestle, MetLife, and Johnson & Johnson.
According to Khera, there are two types of stigmas: internal and external. “An internal stigma is when people confuse failing with failure and they feel so disheartened that they give up on themselves.”
Khera says they declare themselves to be a failure, but he says this is not really true.
“You might have failed but that doesn’t mean you’re a failure – failing is an event in life but being a failure is a spirit.”
Khera says that all great success stories are also stories of great failure.
“These champions learned from their mistakes and bounced back – that’s why success is not measured by how high we go up in life, but how many times we bounce back when we fall down.”
On the other hand, he says an external stigma occurs when the world stigmatizes a person.
“But, you need to ask yourself how important are those people in your life or their opinions,” Khera says. “It is only when you let the people rob you of your mental peace that you actually fail.”
Khera explains that when people experience an initial failure, the self-esteem takes a hit, and warns that when self-esteem is at a low level, it is quite easy to fail again.
“It becomes a vicious cycle, and our objective is to break the failure cycle and get into the success cycle.” He says it’s important to properly understand the role of problems. “Success is not the absence of problems, it is overcoming problems.”
And so, it is the individual’s mindset that determines the impact of a failed endeavor. “There is a lot of truth in the adage ‘failure breeds failure’ and ‘success breeds success,’ because to positive people, failure is a cause for success, but to negative people, failure equals a full stop.”
That’s why college students (and young adults in general) need to develop resilience.
“Has anyone achieved anything without resilience – whether an athlete, a musician, a doctor, an engineer – anyone?” Khera asks. For example, STEM college students who learn by example may miss key concepts, but instead of dropping out of STEM programs, these student need to make the necessary changes to grasp the underlying principles instead of memorizing examples.
He says that resilience equals mental toughness and explains that it is one of the most important traits a successful person has.
“Resilience is more important than talent, education and genius all put together – it’s like the adage, ‘Tough times don’t last, tough people do.’”
Khera says resilience explains how some people break records and other people break themselves. And, he adds, “There is an old saying, ‘A hammer shatters glass but forges steel’ – resilience is like steel – you hit steel, it becomes stronger.”
He believes it is fine to fail and fall, but not to quit.
“Unfortunately, most people quit when they could have succeeded had they stuck it out.” He warns against being devastated by critical feedback or giving up if the initial plan does not work.
“It is resilience that keeps the fire burning inside the person instead of letting it burn him down,” Khera says. “In the business community, we call it, the ‘fire in the belly’ and in the sports community, we call it the ‘killer instinct.’”