I Wish I Had Known: You Really Can Fail

This is probably one of the harsher posts of the series, but also one of the most important and I never really fully appreciated it: you really can fail.

When I say you really can ‘fail’, I don’t mean get an F on your essay studying the relationship between alcohol and brain power, I mean fail as in you have just torpedoed your future hopes and dreams, or at least greatly reduced the probability of achieving them.

Failing on that level is usually not a one off event – an in depth study of the lead up would point to a series of smaller events which lead to the eventual tipping point – but none the less the result is the same. You will be forced to accept a new reality, and adjust to it accordingly – you will have failed in pursuing your initial path.

I Thought Complete Failure Was Impossible

Let me start with a little background, a couple broad generalizations (which may or may not be true – but usually are), and then a story about my personal realization of this fact.

When we are young, we aren’t really allowed to fail. Sure, maybe you get an F on a project (or just a bad mark), but no one is going to keep you in grade 3 for a few extra years while you master the basics of reading – it just doesn’t happen. This process then compounds into high school as we get ‘prepped for real life,’ but are at the same time given multiple opportunities to earn ‘extra credit’ to make up for poor marks – i.e. embedding the idea that you can reactively prevent failure (spoiler: that’s not how the real world works).

Then comes the real tragedy – students get shipped off to university/college with a flawed set of beliefs. There is a mismatch in what students have been led to believe up to this point, and what professors believe. Students, consciously or subconsciously, do not accept that they can fail in absolute terms. If I do poorly on a paper, I merely resubmit it. If I do poorly in a class, I simply apply for extra credit projects – or ask for a boost. It’s important to note that these perceptions are not entirely the students fault – these are the rules they have come to appreciate and understand for the past 12 years of their academic life. How is a student to understand that when they move from high school to university, the rules abruptly change even though the game remains constant?

Professors on the other hand, are under a different impression. Almost as if meeting a quota, they see failure as a way to scare the flock into performance. At Wilfrid Laurier (where I took my undergraduate degree), failure numbers were flaunted religiously as a way to measure the difficulty of the program – but I still don’t think it has a lasting impression on students (it didn’t on me) – they remain largely undaunted.

The stage is now set for quite the drama; all that is required is a catalyst. The student is fearless of failure. The professor on the other side of the table is unwavering with indifference. Enter the catalyst – absolute freedom. Students can do what they want, when they want, with whom they want, without fear of real failure; a perfect recipe for a dramatic end – and this leads us to my story.

When I was in first year, I largely thought I had learned everything I needed to know (after acing my first midterm) – I was content to playing video games and watching movies (which were readily available on the file sharing program). My thinking: what was the worst that could happen, maybe a couple extra assignments? After all, that was my paradigm at the time. Well, I can fortunately say, that although I didn’t fail, I walked very closely along the edge of that cliff. I got a 51% on my first year business final, which if failed, would have resulted in me failing a required course, which would of forced me to retake the course, or *gulp* switch programs.

That was when it hit me – I really can fail here. And it wasn’t just ‘I have to re-do a paper fail’, it was a level of ‘the trajectory of my life would have been forever changed in a negative way’ fail – and guess what? Outside your friends and family, no one cares.

I Learned Failure Was VERY Possible, and Without Diligence, VERY Probable

Not to have a negative outlook, but gravity brings things back to zero in the long run. Doing something challenging requires constant effort, and constant attention – the neutral position leads to failure. If you are exercising, failure doesn’t require you going out and purposefully eating junk food – it requires you to just not exercise – the rest will take care of itself.

My insight in that first year encounter was four fold; firstly, failure is a constant threat that should not be underestimated – no one is immune. Secondly, the potential risk of failure usually grows with your responsibility/position in life. Thirdly, failure is (for the most part), not a one off event – it is the result of a series of events. Finally, here’s the harshest one: no one cares.

  1. No one is immune to failure: I don’t know how to properly word this, as an appreciation of it is hard to verbalize, but here it is: anyone can fail – and it will hurt. When I was working with the Business office to get my degree conferred early (I needed it for a work visa), I coincidently stopped in while someone was talking to one of the academic advisers.
    It was an unpleasant conversation: a girl was talking to the head of the department, begging for another chance to retake a few courses. She had not achieved the first year GPA requirements, and therefore had to switch out of the program – into another discipline. There was no play again, no repeat, no extra credit – this was the end of the line. Unfortunately, she most likely didn’t realize it until it was too late – but that is the level of failure I am talking about. That girl will have to rethink her career path, her lifestyle goals, and her overall life plan – because like it or not, her future just took a drastic change.
  1. Risk levels grow with responsibility: the CEO has a lot more to lose then mailroom clerk in the case of failure. The PHD student has a lot more to lose then the undergrad. As you (hopefully) progress in life, the potential value of a failure will increase more and more – which is why it is essential that you come to appreciate the possibility of it, and hedge accordingly. I am not asking you to live your life in fear, rather I am purporting that you live a proactive life to identify and addresses issues before they manifest into failure.
  2. A result of habits: failure is the event that occurs as a result of habits. Taking that formula in reverse, failure is not something you experience at one point in time – it is the compounded result of daily activities. Watching too much TV, not exercising, not reading, not studying, these are the habits that lead to failure – the failure is just a culminating event – a symptom of the underlying problem.
    Conversely to that, you can attack the possibility of a failure occurring by addressing your habits. Rather than cram studying for one test that you might fail, build the habit of studying for all tests sufficiently, and you will have addressed the issue at a much deeper level.
  3. No one cares if you fail: as cold-hearted as this sounds, let me hit you with a slap of reality – very few people care if you fail. In the above example, you drop out of school, they confide with you about how unfair it is, how you will figure things out, and how it’s not the end of the world, and then guess what? They go on living their lives. You are left with the fallout to clean up. The key is to remember that if you fail, it is on you, no one will be as impacted as you – and no one will care more than you.

If I Could Go Back – I Would Be More Aware, and Appreciate the Gravity

If I could go back to school, I would sit myself down, and repeat the following words: “I really can fail if I am not careful.” I needed to understand that I am no longer in the shallow end – I was in the deep end, and guess what happens if you stop swimming? You drown. That’s all there is to it – be frank with yourself. The crutches that might have got you through high school are gone. You are now most likely a number on a spreadsheet: and this spreadsheet doesn’t care if you go below 50%.

Also, I would appreciate the gravity of the situation. You are largely determining the trajectory of the next 30-40 years of your life! Are you willing to trade a few nights out for a diminished return on the next 40 years? Once you get to university, you are playing for keeps. There are, for the most part, no mulligan’s in this game. Unless ‘Daddy Warbucks’ has set aside a leviathan trust fund for you, then I would encourage everyone to see it as it is: this is your chance to prove yourself to the world (both during university and after). You have two choices: rise to the occasion, or fail – no one cares which you choose, but it will be one of them – try to avoid the failure, because it’s a very real and very dangerous possibility.

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