It’s exam results time. If we get the grades we were hoping for = success. If we don’t get them = failure. Thinking we are a failure isn’t great but it’s also not great to think we are a success either.
Why being a failure is bad
When we think we are a failure we might think “what’s the point” or “I give up.” We think of ourselves as being unable to do this thing but also other things. So we don’t try again and so we don’t achieve the thing we want but also other things too.
There can be a lot of pressure placed on us from those around us, from school and workplaces (though this might be changing) and from broader society to not be ‘a failure’ and to be ‘a success.’ This pressure is then placed on us like we’re not smart enough, or didn’t work hard enough. Forgetting that we all have different backgrounds, home lives, learning methods, interests etc. This stuff can be huge and really hard to let go of (for us and towards other people).
Sorting people out into ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ is bad for those who are labelled failures but also for those labelled ‘a success’ too. When we think (or we are told) we are ‘a success’ we might think “yes I’m brilliant” or “I’m not a failure, great!.” This might be good for a bit (yay, go you) and you might be so relieved of not being a failure because you’ve seen how much that sucks. But why is this a problem?
Why being a success is bad
I reckon being ‘a success’ and ‘being successful’ are two very different things. Being ‘a success’ is showing or proving your success right now at this moment. We show we are ‘a success’ by a narrow range of things like certificates, money, job title etc (just as we show that we are a failure by not having those things).
‘Being successful’ is not about proving success, but it’s an on-going gradual, day to day, process of adapting plans (when things go well and not so well), growing, problem solving, being curious and thinking creatively. It’s more open and there are many ways of doing it. Being successful is not about proving you know all the answers but saying that you actually don’t know all the answers.
Often, in class or with friends, people will avoid asking a question because they don’t want to look stupid. I definitely do that. The pressure on us not to look stupid (a failure) is huge. However, by not asking the question we are then missing out on learning something that could be really interesting, useful or important. A ‘successful’ person is less likely to be bothered about looking stupid (or smart), they are more interested in learning what it is they don’t know in order that they can learn it, if they want to.
Someone who is really into being ‘a success’ is content knowing what they do know but not knowing what they don’t know. So they stay within themselves because they really don’t want to be ‘a failure.’ This also means that when they do eventually experience a setback, they may lack the resilience to be able to deal with it and feel that they are a failure. It also makes life boring if we only focus on the destination rather than the journey too, right?
Fear of failure
Sometimes we don’t want to try a new thing because we don’t want to find out we can’t do it. *raises hand* The fear of failure is so big that we might not try at all, or we try a bit but then it confirms we are a failure and just stop.
If we could let go of ‘success/failure’ and can be curious about a new thing, what we know, what we don’t know and what we need to know to be better at the thing, we might get better at the thing. This is not to say we can all do everything – we can’t (structural inequality, innit). But we can probably do more things than we think we can. #things
Success/Failure makes us feel crap
Believing in this success/failure thing can be exhausting. The highs and lows of ‘yes I can do everything’ and ‘no I can’t do anything’ require so much energy because we are tackling the heavy difficult feelings that are attached to them. So much fear and sadness and disappointment. It’s a kind of all or nothing approach where we can end up treating ourselves really badly.
It’s a huge drain on motivation too because of all the energy we take up on getting over the idea of failure. Rather than learning from setbacks and making new plans.
Exams are a very ‘success/failure’ thing. They are about showing at a particular time, in a particular place what it is that you could show you had learned, not what it was you might actually have learned. They feel very important because we’re having to play by the rules of the education system.
However if having a successful career is your thing, getting good grades isn’t everything. Employers are often just as keen (if not more keen) on other things: such as your problem solving abilities, how quickly you can learn new things, whether you can use your creativity or imagination, how you deal with challenges, whether you can work with people and what you do with setbacks. It also means that you get to explore what being successful means to you.
This can be hard to hear when all we are taught is the importance of getting good grades. And big ups for you if you’re feeling like a failure right now. Like with all difficult feelings, some self care and time can really help. After the difficult feelings lessen a bit you can adjust your plans, be curious about other paths for what you do next and think more about what it is you’ve learnt and what you’ve learnt about yourself rather than your grades. Even if you got the grades you wanted (mini yay) I reckon that’s good advice for you too.
For more reading why not try
For next steps after your A Level results check this amazing guide by Dr Petra Boynton
Dr Carol Dweck’s work on Mindsets (where I got a lot of this stuff from)
Susan Jeffer’s book Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway (where I got the plane analogy from)
Dr Meg John Barker’s awesome Rewriting the Rules
Dr Gary Wood’s book Unlock Your Confidence is great
© Justin Hancock, 2015