How do you feel about studying failure?
How do you feel when you hear the word failure?
How do you feel when you think about a time you've failed?
Like you could eat failure for breakfast and that mistakes and failings simply bounce off and mean nothing to you? Or is failure something you want to run away from; something that destroys your confidence and makes you doubt yourself and your abilities.
If you’re in the first group, this blog post isn’t for you. If you’re in the second group, welcome to the party (you can have a seat next to me!) In this blog post I’m going to talk about studying failure: our relationship with it, the power it holds over us, and how we can overcome it and maybe even start believing it can be a good thing for our future success.
The fun-fest that’s studying failure
Most students I know, me included, have failed at something (or a lot of things) in their studies. Achieving a low grade, failing an exam, getting stuck on a tricky concept, doing the wrong thing in an essay….etc. And most students have felt like a failure at some point. Each mistake sticks to us like glue and becomes a heavy shell of studying failure that weighs us down and whittles away at our confidence, impacting our mindset and results.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines the word ‘fail’ as “to not succeed in what you are trying to achieve or are expected to do.”
The problem with the concept of failing is that we extend its meaning and timeline. Failing an exam feels like a slap in the face and can really shake our confidence. Failing exam after exam feeds this disappointment and doubt, causing it to grow exponentially until we start to believe that WE are a failure; that we’re not good enough and never will be for this subject or even studying as a whole.
This doesn’t just happen in studying. If we fail to get a job from an interview, or even if we fail to get a job after ten interviews, we extend this instance to mean we can’t be good enough or will never get a job.
Remove studying failure’s power
What would happen if we changed our relationship with studying failure? What would happen if we changed the power the word fail has over us? What would happen if we believed failing was frustrating and upsetting but could actually, in the end, be looked back on as a good thing?
Author, Elizabeth Day, says “learning how to fail is actually learning how to succeed better.” In her incredible book, How to Fail, Day shares the times she’s failed, the lessons she’s learned from those mistakes, and the successes she’s had, not despite her failures, but because of them.
There is no studying failure, only feedback
‘There is no failure, only feedback’ is a presupposition I learned during my recent NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) training. To presuppose means to agree something is true before you do or try it. This presupposition expands our view of what’s possible for us. It’s the belief that failing gives us lessons that will lead us to success quicker.
Now, I’m not saying this is an easy thing to believe. Your first thought to this notion might be – shut the front door. But I want you to sit and consider how your studying mindset and results could improve if you were to see this presupposition as an absolute truth about studying and the world.
Failure as life lessons
Here’s a non-studying example for you first. I’ve experienced a fair few relationships ending and I’m sure those who have too will agree that it can be a pretty miserable time. Each time it happens there’s negative emotions – disappointment, anger, low self-confidence – sometimes all at once!
But by believing ‘there is no failure, only feedback’, I can look at these relationships as lessons. From each one I’ve learned who I am, what my boundaries are, what my values are, and what kind of relationship and partner I need and want (and those I don’t!)
With each relationship I like to think I’ve gotten closer to ‘success’ and the lessons I’ve learned are helping me every day in my current, lovely relationship. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t gone through those failures, and I may not have even been in my current relationship without those twists and turns.
Now, let’s bring this back to studying.
The yay-parade of studying failure
Making mistakes is a vital part of learning. Running out of time in an exam is a stressful experience. If you choose to, you could see this as a failure and believe that you’re not good at exams. Or, you could see this studying failure as an opportunity to improve your strategy. You could walk into your next exam having calculated how long you should spend on each question. When you reach your limit per question you move on, whether you’ve finished or not, you attempt every question and seriously increase your final grade.
What about if you receive a low essay grade because you didn’t answer the question fully? You could see this studying failure as a sign that you’re useless at essay writing, not good enough to be studying and should just drop out. Or…you could view this mistake as a learning opportunity. Before you start your next essay, you learn how to breakdown essay questions and understand what they mean (I have a guide for that in my Study Success Resource Library!). You submit an essay you’re proud of and receive a great mark because your essay closely answers the question that’s been set.
Just as a baby trying to walk learns a lesson or new strategy each time they fall, a student can and should view each challenge or mistake they face as an opportunity to learn from the past and an opportunity to try something different next time to see better results.
How to overcome studying failure
So, how can you implement this life-changing study lesson?
1. Accept the presupposition “there is no studying failure, only feedback”
Write this down on a sticky note, in your studying notebook or set it as your phone or computer wallpaper. Repeat this mantra as many times as necessary until it becomes your belief about studying and the world.
2. Reflect on past failures
Everyone has failed at something – whether it’s to do with work, studying, relationships, family…anything. Think back to some of your past failures. If this is a painful place, don’t stay there too long. Instead, think about the lessons you learned from that experience. Think about the knowledge you gained about yourself or other people, the beliefs that changed for the better, the skills you’ve developed, the mistakes you know not to repeat, the strategies you now know don’t work.
Doing this will build up your habit and skill of being able to view failure as simply feedback and a stepping stone to future success.
3. Become a detective of studying failure
When you experience studying failure, give yourself some time to get over the shock or disappointment, and then jump into detective-mode. Think about why the mistake occurred, and what you could do differently next time to improve the situation.
Become a detective whenever you receive a grade too. There’s ALWAYS something you can do to improve your studying (unless all your grades are currently 100%). Pay attention to the feedback you’re given and ask for more if you’re not given enough. Use this to discover what you could do differently next time to achieve a higher grade.