Reflecting on failure – Ekant Veer

As students receive their exam results on Friday 7 July, staff have a chance to reflect on what they might be experiencing, how students might have various perceptions of failure and success – and how as staff members we can listen to and support them.

2017 Teaching Medal recipient Associate Professor Ekant Veer recently took some time to reflect on failure in this Insider’s Guide blog for students which we share here for staff. Contact details for a range of student support services follow this blog.

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I fail. Not ‘I failed once’ but I fail and I fail daily. I’ve actually become pretty good at it, it happens so often. Even though I fail a lot it still hurts. It sucks…I HATE failing. And yet I still throw myself into situations where I fail. From an outsider’s perspective I must be either stupid or some sort of masochist to keep going back for more punishment.

Just yesterday I was told by a journal that the research paper I wrote would not be published by them. My work wasn’t good enough. I failed. And I’m going to rewrite the work and send it to someone else…who will probably tell me I suck, too.

Why do I do this? Why would I keep going back for more punishment? Sure, I feel a sense of responsibility to fulfil my role – I mean, it’s my job so I have to. But why would I stay in a job that puts me in a position where I am shit on, on a regular basis?  Well, because failure isn’t a bad thing. It feels bad, for sure, but avoidance of failure is probably the single most common reason for not reaching your potential.

Somewhere along the line society decided that being happy was the most important thing in life. Anything that upsets us or challenges us should be put to one side. Anything hard or confusing should be avoided at all costs.

Bullshit.

That’s not how life works. If you haven’t failed then you aren’t stretching yourself enough. If you haven’t been told ‘you’re not good enough’ you’re not exploring adventures that make life worth living. If you haven’t struggled, then you’re not reaching your full potential…and for me, that’s a waste of talent.

True winners in life aren’t the ones who succeed the most, but those who keep getting up after failing and making the changes necessary to give it a better go next time.  Coping with failure isn’t easy but something EVERYONE needs to do because you WILL fail at something. Everything we do has a consequence and sometimes when we fail the consequences seem pretty significant. The bigger the consequences of the failure the harder it is to cope, but you WILL cope.  I can’t solve every problem you face but here are some initial thoughts that help me cope.

  • Do things you could fail at.
    Don’t ever be afraid of trying something new/hard. Trust me, that’s where the interesting stuff is. No one gets excited by mundane tasks. They want to hear the adventures. Go on an adventure and push yourself.
  • When you fail, don’t wallow in it.
    Don’t run away from knowing you’ve failed but when you see you have, don’t put your life on hold and hide away. Don’t let it consume you. Know you’ve failed and then walk away from it for a day or two. Also, don’t rush any major decisions while you feel this way. Everything is up in the air and making big choices when you feel like a failure is a really bad idea, trust me!!!
    When you’ve had a couple of days to let the shock subside, return to the failure and examine it more objectively. What went wrong, why, how? Don’t look for blame. Look for solutions. The solutions should be focused on doing better next time.
  • Ask for help.
    The worst thing you can do is try and sort it out yourself. We are often so embarrassed about failing we don’t tell anyone or share our failures with others. I hate to tell you this, but you are probably not the best person to fix this. Last time you tried, you failed, remember! Don’t be ashamed and ask for help.  Also, it’s better to cry on someone’s shoulder than on your own (again, trust me!!!).
  • Don’t rely on external validation to feel worthwhile.
    No one is going to be your cheerleader. Don’t wait for awards and accolades to determine if you’re good enough. YOU need to drive YOU. You need to know when you’ve done well and when you’re winning. If you wait for someone else you will always see the negative stuff and ignore the positive. It’s normal human confirmation bias.
  • Put it in perspective.
    Did anyone get hurt? You may feel sad for a few days but did anyone really get hurt and is that pain irreparable. Probably not. I work damned hard to do the best I can, but I still fail. Guess what, my kids don’t care. They just want me to be home to play with them. There is far more to life than publications, exams, tests, etc. It’s ok for it to be hurt, but failing isn’t the end.
  • Try again. And again. And again.
    Every amazing thing you’ve seen happen is just a reflection of hours, weeks, months, years of trying and failing. If it helps, stay off social media. Hardly anyone posts their failures, just their successes. Don’t compare yourself to them because for every amazing thing they’ve achieved they’ve probably failed a thousand times.

So, is there an easy way to get over failure? No. It takes practice and it takes hard work. Effort is central to your success. Own your failure – don’t externalise the blame. Own it and fix it. Get someone to help you and try again. And if you still fail, does it really matter? It might cost you more time, more money and maybe a little of my pride. But does it really matter? Your friends will still be your friends, your family will still love you. At no point is failure something you should avoid.

And if you’re not failing – push yourself. Give something new a go.  Do something every day that scares you a little.

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Need support now? www.canterbury.ac.nz/student-support – click here

Got some thoughts on failure and success? Take some time to comment.

One thought on “Reflecting on failure – Ekant Veer”

  1. Loved it that was so refreshing. If I get into difficulty getting my thesis written and stuff published I shall know where to turn and now I realize writing is not necessarily any easier for academics than students but you just have more experience to draw on.

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