Three Stories: #1 What I Learned from Failure

It’s considered bad form to start ‘business stories’ with “Once upon a time” but there’s a strong edge of bard to my nature and it’s the end of a long year. (Let’s be generous.) So, are you sitting comfortably? (Ok, I’ll spare you ‘Once…’)

Many years ago, I went to university, after a relatively undistinguished career at school. I got into a course that was not my first preference but, rather than wonder why I had not set the world on fire academically, I assumed that it was because I hadn’t really tried. The companion to this sentiment is that I could achieve whatever I wanted academically, as long as I really wanted it and actually tried. This concept, that I could achieve anything academic I wanted if I tried, got a fairly good workout over the next few years, despite evidence that I was heading in a downward spiral academically. What I became good at was barely avoiding failure, rather than excelling, and while this is a skill, it’s a dangerous line to try and walk. If you’re genuinely aiming to excel, which includes taking the requisite planning steps and time commitment you need, and you fall short then you will probably still do quite well and pass. If you are focused lower down, then missing that bar means failure.

What I didn’t realise at the time was that I was almost doomed to fail when I tried to set my own interpretation of what constituted the right level of effort and participation. If you are a student who has a good knowledge of the whole course then you will have a pretty good idea of how you have answered questions in exams, what is required for assignments and, if you wanted to, you could choose to answer part of a question and have some idea of how many marks are involved. If you don’t know the material in detail, then your perception of your own performance is going to be heavily filtered by your own lack of knowledge. (A reminder of a previous post on this for those who are new here or are vague post-Christmas.)

After some years out in the workforce, and coming back to do postgraduate study, I finally learned something from what should have been quite clear to me, if it hadn’t been hidden by two things: my firm conviction that I could change things immediately if I wished to, and my completely incorrect assumption that my own performance in a subject could be assessed by someone with my level of knowledge!

I became a good student because I finally worked out three key things (with a lot of help and support from my teachers and my friends);

  1. There is no “lower threshold” of knowledge that allows you to predict if you’re going to pass. If you have enough grasp of the course to know how much you need to do to pass, then you probably know enough to do much better than that! (Terry Pratchett covers this beautifully in a book called “Moving Pictures“, where a student has to know the course better than the teachers to maintain a very specific grade over the years.)
  2. Telling yourself that you “could have done better” is almost completely useless unless you decide to do better and put a plan in place to achieve that. This excuse gets you off the hook but, unless it’s teamed with remedial action, it’s just an excuse.
  3. Setting yourself up for failure is just as effective as setting yourself up for success, but it can be far subtler and comprised of many small actions that you don’t take, rather than a few actions that you do take.

Knowing what is going wrong (or thinking you do) doesn’t change anything unless you actively try to change it. It’s a simple truth that, I hope, is a useful and interesting story.

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