Epic Fail? Experts Offer Tips On How To Overcome Failure
Failure is inevitable, but it is also essential to achieving success, say two experts at the Texas A&M University Academic Success Center (ASC).
Assistant Provost for Undergraduate Studies Valerie Balester and Academic Coach Tyler Laughlin work to help students achieve their academic goals and, when necessary, overcome failure. They encourage students to embrace the idea of “good failure” and provide steps to help them recover and succeed.
Balester, who has been working in higher education for more than 40 years, turns to her own experiences and encounters with students when discussing failure. Laughlin, creator and presenter of the ASC workshop “True GRIT: Gaining Resilience, Inspiration, and Tenacity,” has worked with students on overcoming failure for the past three years as an academic coach.
Laughlin said he looks at failure on a scale. Located on one side, “bad failure” encompasses the stigma and negative feelings, like shame and defeat, associated with failure. An example of “bad failure” could be when a student receives a bad grade and lets emotions like anger and frustration build up without taking proactive steps to address what caused the failure.
“If you focus on how the failure was bad, how it was wrong, how it makes you feel bad, and you get stuck in that loop, then it’s really difficult to get out of,” Laughlin said. “It can affect students negatively because if that’s the only thing you think about, typically you lose motivation, that edge to keep going.”
On the opposite end of “bad failure” is “good failure,” he said, where you view defeat as an opportunity to grow and do better.
“It’s a universal human trait; we all breathe, we all eat, we all fail,” Laughlin said. “Nobody wants to admit it’s important, but failure provides experience, growth and value that you can share with others. When we talk about it as a normal process, that helps destigmatize it. Failure is an event, not a person.”
Steps to Take After Failure
- Feel your emotions. Whether those are feelings of anger, frustration or sadness, it’s important to do this initially instead of letting them build up. “The first thing to do is go through the process of being mad and upset,” Laughlin said. “You have to. It’s a normal human process.”
- Accept the defeat. For some people, coming to terms with the failure can be done by writing down the experience and talking to others. “Just acknowledge it like ‘Yeah, I failed. But I learned something from it,’” Balester said. “Whether it’s the voice in your head or the voice of another person, answer those negative points. Acknowledge the failure and recognize its value.”
- Analyze the event. Ask yourself, “Why did that happen?” and “What caused that?” Retrace your steps and figure out where things went wrong. “Figure out why that particular thing failed and adjust your behaviors or your strategies; you might take an entirely new direction,” Balester said.
- Make a decision. This decision could be moving on from the event, trying again with different tactics, or asking for help. “The stigma of failure couples closely with being willing to ask for help or being willing to get help if you need it, whether personal, academic, or whatever it may be,” Laughlin said. “If you know what went wrong, ask yourself, ‘What can I do to ensure it doesn’t happen again?’ and ‘What steps can I take to learn from it?’”
Overcoming the Stigma
To help students who may be struggling with failure and seeking motivation to succeed, ASC Academic Coaches offer one-on-one coaching sessions.
As an academic coach, Laughlin said he uses relatability to help destigmatize the topic.
“The best thing I think I do with students is make myself as relatable as possible to empathize with failure,” he said. “I tell them about my own struggles when I wasn’t as successful as I hoped or flat out didn’t do well.”
Laughlin said it’s important to talk about the topic openly and recognize that failure is an inherent part of the process of becoming successful. For example, he said, everyone failed at things as a child, like when learning to walk or ride a bike.
By reframing failure as an everyday topic and relating to others, the stigma that failure will prevent success will inevitably subside, Laughlin said. Instead of being associated with negative thoughts, failure can be connected to thoughts like “The most successful people fail,” “This is an opportunity to learn,” and “Failure doesn’t define me.”