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A Collective Becoming II: Understanding Failure, Building Resilience

“What’s the hardest question we could ask you right now?”

I remember sitting at that interview table, in a very nice house, at the end of Sterling Street in Hamilton. I felt confident and prepared, like I knew the answer. Thinking back to what I said at the time, I can now think of a new answer to indulge in – and maybe that’s the point. What happens when our plans don’t exactly work out the way we envisioned?

In my last blog, I introduced my experiences surrounding the topic of mentorship. A huge part of my mentoring experiences included exposure to new academic and social areas, and feeling excited to share my success with important individuals. It recently came to my attention, however, that my failures were also a part of my process. An idea that is fairly new and uncomfortable to my liking, but strangest of all – I’ve learned that it’s okay.

Failure in a university setting is often seen by students as something to shy away from: an event not worth sharing and better to be left in the past. There is, however, a substantial lesson that can be attributed to the process of persevering through failure. Most importantly, it is a process individuals do not have to face on their own. Experiencing the effects of failure with your mentor, an individual who you can trust and who has been involved in facilitating your growth, is an opportunity to capitalize on in order to help feel more prepared when approaching future endeavours. Universities could use this strategy to promote positive learning outcomes for their students.

In researching the topic of failure, I came across an article written by Greg Siering from Indiana University. The article introduced the role of risk-taking and failure in a learning environment, and highlighted how past perspectives in academia have punished failure and rewarded success. In an attempt to overcome this attitude, he discusses failure in controlled environments. A mentoring relationship is exactly this type of environment – having facilitated time to ask for advice, overcome setbacks, and find solutions together. It is also an opportunity to relate.

The ability to relate is a crucial part in normalizing failure. Demonstrating an area or time of vulnerability, and providing options to move forward establishes a common ground that at some point every individual experiences a setback. It’s the decision to come back more knowledgeable and more resilient that makes you stand out.

While universities should be normalizing failure, it is not to say that students should stop aiming for their top goals. I am suggesting a change in institutional attitudes so that we can ensure students feel better supported even in the face of failure. Universities should be pushing their students to take risks by embracing failure as a positive learning tool. We need to understand that when we don’t immediately find success we challenge ourselves to gain new knowledge and problem solving skills.

Through a combination of both knowledge and experiences, individuals begin to learn exponentially. As stated in University Affairs, the idea of productive failing doesn’t have one solution, it has a diversity of solutions. This idea of “productive failing” stood out to me because so many times we ignore the hard work we put into meeting our goals and solely focus on disappointing results. While failure is even more difficult to accept after tirelessly engaging in long hours of work, regardless of the outcome, your productivity isn’t worthless to the process as a whole, but instead adds to your experience. Along the way you may have gained new skills that are applicable in other environments, and you may have even made a few friends or connections that open new opportunities.

We must stop thinking that our setbacks are our final judgment. We should recognize that talking about it doesn’t decrease motivation, but instead creates an opportunity for students to recover at a comfortable pace. This is where I turned to my mentors, because the structured environment made the discomfort of failing more manageable. Often we find ourselves surrounded by so many inspiring individuals that we begin to discredit our own experiences, as the fear of admitting to any obstacles is to succumb to an “institutional no-no.”

Most recently, Johannes Haushofer, a professor at Princeton University, released his “CV of Failures.” Very rarely are students exposed to the setbacks of successful individuals. While reading this prestigious list of applications, I could acknowledge the risk this professor was taking and I began to imagine how discouraging every rejection letter must have felt. But it is in those rejections that when he finally did succeed he could appreciate the process. If the process was supposed to be easy, it wouldn’t be as meaningful. This CV can also enlighten the way professors approach their students in the classroom. Acknowledging a student who is struggling and offering guidance can transform the learning environment on university campuses by instilling structured mentorship in the classroom. It encourages students to visit office hours, and seek extra help from those they view as successful. It creates a more comfortable university setting when students feel empowered.

I encourage you to embrace your failures. Using mentorship as my safe outlet for disclosing my failures has allowed me to invest time in offering a similar support to others. Embracing my own setbacks has empowered me to become a better mentor. Whether it’s a bad grade (or a few bad grades), a letter of rejection for an award, crashing the boat at morning row practice, losing an election, letting down a friend or family member, remember that how we choose to persevere is what builds our grit. It challenges our resilience. Always come back ready to work harder and be inspired by new people and opportunities.

Find success in learning from your setbacks. Show another individual that it’s okay to make mistakes. Ask yourself the hard questions. Work together to find the answers.

Lindsay D’Souza
Summer Research Intern
Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance