Importance of failure

Francis Latusek·8 January 2021·6 min read
Importance of failure

Both in student and professional lives we lead one’s general success or lack thereof is often boiled down to a calculation of little victories and failures. We compare ourselves to our peers, we quantify our performance—be it through per cents on our essays, time spent studying or the class of the degree with which we finish our university education. Many count success as a difference between one’s own salary figure and that of a person one considers unsuccessful, or a ‘life failure’. This toxic (especially if one employs the financial measure) is, I would strongly argue, counter-productive.

Measuring university performance

I do not mean to undermine the basic form of testing and measuring university performance—that is simply impossible to do from a small blog column and, frankly, nonsensical. What I mean to achieve here is a change in your, dear reader, perception of failure in an university setting. Sure, one can always be proud of a good 2:1 or 1st class essay—I will not dispute that. What about those ‘underperforming’ pieces, though? A low 3rd or even a fail is not necessarily a failure. It might be attractive to treat it as such; I myself have done so on numerous occasions. ‘It’s over, nothing more can be done about it, I failed’, I would say, moving on to working on something else without much consideration That is not the way, though. A bad per cent grade, I say, is merely an indication of one’s lack of skill or knowledge in a particular area, and should thus be treated as a feedback on what one ought to improve. It can thus be implemented not as a measure of one’s success, but rather as a tool of self-improvement. The first year at university is usually a watershed moment, in that one usually comes to uni from school where one was, I would imagine, an average or above-average student with decent grades. The first university grades can be a shock. I remember my disbelief when having spent a week writing a (I though) fantastic essay, I received a well below-average mark. This allowed me to improve my writing, though—I continue to do so gradually as I complete modules and subsequent essays up to this very day. Had it not been for the marks that were lower than what I expected, I would not have worked harder to improve. From what I know, I am not isolated in that. That is the designed way of progression here at university. Failure to achieve marks one hopes for is thus not a failure per se, but an opportunity and a lesson to be used in one’s learning. It is those that achieve perfect grades from the outset, or manage to produce a fantastic piece every now and again that seem to plateau—and who wants to peak at university?. If one is already so fantastic at what one does, why go to university altogether?

Aiming for a first?

The inescapable conclusion is thus that ‘failure’ is an essential component in our process of learning. Without it, there is no motivation, no area for improvement, nowhere to go. Failure opens a path forward. It does not matter whether you are a perfectionist aiming at a high 1st at the end of your degree, or a moderate like myself who will be perfectly happy with a grade that is ‘good’ by his own standards. Either way, failure allows us to see our imperfections and work to achieve what we want consistently, without the necessity for nearly heroic, caffeine-fuelled binge-writing/study sessions. Learning, so the ‘nurture’ side of nature/nurture debate accounts for so much more than pure talent, after all. Failure well utilised means more work, of course. Us students, as rather lazy creatures, may not appreciate that—I certainly do not—but we must realise it does, when all is said and done, help us. It will take us further than an uncultivated natural talent or proclivity towards a particular area of study. For fears of sounding a little pathetic I will not roll out the heavy cannons of classical literature and its quotes to support my points; at the same time I really need no Plato nor Cicero to prove what I have put to you here, dear reader. We know, deep down, that we should exercise our faculties, be it mental or physical to experience progress. We want progress, as that is why we attend university. And if failure shows us what needs exercising it is thus clear it is needed. It’s purely logical and common-sense not to see failure to achieve good grades or a wanted result as one’s general failing. We must distinguish between a superficial and true failure. The former is the mentioned ‘bad’ grade, it is a signal and a symptom; the latter is the inability or unwillingness to act upon the former, the lack of lesson taken from superficial failure. Just as in medicine we aim not to cure the symptom, but the underlying condition, we should not lament a superficial academic failure, but work to address its reasons.

What truly counts is your ability to improve

If all this sounds like an overblown nonsense, I would like you, dear reader, to take just the following from this little column: see your performance at university as a gradient, or a change between your initial and final performance. What truly counts is your ability to improve. I will always say that it is better to go from a bad grade to a mediocre one, than simply plateau at a ‘good’ level. Progress will always be better than stagnation; and only an opportunity foregone is a true failure—and even so, no number of failures can truly define one as a person.