Bouncing back from failure

The June exam you just wrote that caught your well-prepared self by surprise. Your application for articles that wasn’t successful.  That interview for an awesome bursary that went nowhere.  Experiencing these events is not fun.

“I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna get me down” are lyrics I remember from my student days.  The song is upbeat and almost makes the whole process of getting knocked down sound like a great vibe.  The reality though is that we all know that it is tough bouncing back from failure or disappointment.

Possible response to failure #1 – “I never want to feel like this again!  From now on, I play it safe” 

We have all been here.  You retreat by making excuses, blaming others, lowering your expectations and aiming to stay safely in your comfort zone.  The story you develop at the point of failure is incredibly important. “What is the use? I am never going to make it any way” is the wrong story to believe but it is seductive because it lets you off the hook.  You are a victim, you’ve given up.  You work less and when failure repeats you can smugly tell yourself, “I told you so!”.

I do have sympathy for this response but lets face it, it doesn’t lead to life lived to the full.  Checking out mentally when the going gets tough means giving up far too quickly.  It reminds me of the book written by a nurse who cared for those who were in the final weeks of their lives.  Most people regretted “playing it safe” when reflecting on their lives.  The top 5 regrets of her patients, when facing death, is well worth a read. 

Possible response to failure #2 – “That was not great but I will learn from it and try again” 

You aren’t living in a make believe world where failure doesn’t hurt, but you have decided that it will not be the final word.  You will learn from failure and try again.  I had a friend at UCT who applied for a great internship opportunity.  He fell out at the interview stage but then had the courage to contact the firm and ask for feedback.  They met with him and were so impressed by his humility and desire to learn from failure that they ended up offering him the internship anyway!  This fairy-tale ending will not always happen, but the long-term trend looks good for those who respond to failure like this.

The word I learnt at school was perseverance but today it has been repackaged as grit.  It is vital.  Here is a great TED talk by Angela Duckworth that unpacks the science.  As a lecturer, I view developing grit in students as being a major goal.  If I manage to do this, no matter what the future holds, I know that my students will not allow failure to have the final say.

How do you develop grit? I have already written about adopting a growth mindset, which is the key habit.  That will mean that you will get a copy of your June papers, review them thoroughly, ask questions of your lecturer, keep a record of what you will do differently next time and keep reminding yourself why all the hard work is worth it.

Getting knocked down and getting back up is not a party, but it grows grit muscles that you will use for the rest of your life.  I look forward to your epic comeback!



Paul Maughan

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