Fear of failure is rampant at universities. There is a clearly defined line between success and failure, and it is measured in grade-point averages. Believing high grades are vital achievements, students strive single-mindedly to obtain them.
The first thing students look at when a professor returns an exam or assignment is the grade — not the corrections or the suggestions that are scrawled in the margins. There are no marks awarded for doing something new or for caring deeply about what you’re learning. When only the grade is important, students lose any interest in doing work beyond what is necessary to get a good mark.
From early childhood we are taught to fear failure. It’s discouraged by our parents, teachers and peers. We learn that failure is something that must be avoided at all costs.
Yet failure is inevitable and does not have to be a negative. In fact, it is necessary. Without failure there would be no growth, no innovation and even no light bulb.
Thomas Edison said of his failed attempts at the light bulb that he didn’t fail, he just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. One of the greatest things failure allows for is discovery. It is impossible to discover what works if you don’t explore what doesn’t work first.
While failure is both unavoidable and essential for growth or innovation, this doesn’t make it any less terrifying. People will go to any length to avoid being labelled a “failure,” but it’s important to remember that this isn’t something you are, it’s something you do.
Failing once does not ensure a lifetime of failure, just as succeeding once doesn’t ensure a lifetime of success. Refusing to allow initial successes or failures to define you is more important. The difference between people we revere and those we have never heard of is that great people in history learn from their mistakes and use them to improve.
Fear of failure can drive a student to cheat. When all that matters is your grade, you are far more likely to use illegitimate means in order to get a better mark.
Despite this overwheling fear, failure can be incredibly motivating.
I had never come close to failing a test before my third year of university, when I failed my translation midterm. Despite the fact that I claimed to love this class, I didn’t put enough effort into it and my disinterest showed. Failing pushed me to work harder and more efficiently. I refused to be defined by one botched midterm, and in the end I had a mark and a body of work that I was proud of despite an initial letdown.
Depending on grades to define one’s success also creates students who are afraid to push established boundaries. Instead of trying a new formula or exploring unorthodox theories, students stick to common practices and ideas. This may result in good grades but it stunts innovation.
Students who follow this path often end up being largely the same. They become static entities, too afraid to support their own causes.
Failure is a great thing to be good at, because it is necessary to finding success later on. Failure should not be shunned in universities or anywhere else. Why not embrace failure when it happens? Once you fail you realize it’s not as scary as you once thought.
Sure, it stings and it will bruise your ego, but you’ll recover.
Illustration: Stephanie Mah