Updated: Oct 18, 2019
It's always hard to take a step back and accept moments of failure. However, with a little bit of self-validation and motivation, we can use these failures to grow into stronger and happier human beings.
Art by Maggie Chiang
What do we do when goals aren’t met? From childhood, we’re given advice about how to reach our highest potential and find success. However, we’re never told how to fail with grace and introspection, only that failure is the opposite of success. Throughout my first year of college, I learned that “failure” and “success” are not so different from each other.
Failing feels a lot like freefalling with nothing to break our landing other than our own body. We grasp for anything—any silver lining to help us stay hopeful for the future. The aftermath of the fall no doubt involves heartbreak and frustration with ourselves, but it also provides space for a lot of self-reflection and understanding about who we are. So how do we overcome the guilt of failure and learn from it instead? How do we make sure we’re healthy enough to get back up, dust ourselves off and instill the mindset that we must keep trying?
I think it starts with a commitment to our own definitions of success. I used to believe that I succeeded because of the motivation from my peers and my future; I failed because of something I intrinsically lack. But the first semester of college forced me to re-examine who I succeed for and why I failed. When my motivation shifted towards fulfilling my present self’s potential, that’s when I began to grow.
During winter break that year, I reflected upon my fall semester. Along with the harsh transition of high school classes to premed weed-out classes, I had a hard time understanding that failures are truly stepping stones towards success. Instead, I saw them as a prediction of what was to come. Every time a goal wasn’t accomplished, I’d catastrophize my results, believing that all motivation was gone. I would get lost in the freefall of what it was to be “bad at everything.” Sitting in my childhood bedroom that winter, I discovered that these failures taught me just the opposite. They taught me what doesn’t work for me—and what does.
Much like scientific experimentation, my failures were a type of trial and error, helping me to become more knowledgeable about myself. What did I have to do differently to find the perfect path to success? I wasn’t comparing my failure to anyone else’s anymore, only to myself. This was a key turning point in the way I viewed myself through both academic and lifestyle lenses.
When I began the spring semester, I entered with a revitalized commitment to academic success built upon my own terms. What did it mean for me to be successful? Not comparing myself to others was a hard challenge to attempt—I spent most of my high school years assuming that success was on the terms of other people, not my own. Slowly, I set unique goals that used the failures from freshman year fall semester to motivate my success in spring and onwards. I became a well-oiled machine that was self-aware of when I was drifting away from my necessary study habits and when I was on track to succeed. Academics wasn’t a toss of the coin anymore. Instead, I walked into each exam knowing whether I had studied well enough to reach my standard of success.
Analyzing my failures as instances that help me understand how I can do better in the future is hard. Stepping back from a frustrated and guilty conscience in order to motivate your future self feels pointless at the moment. But I’ve realized that whether it takes you a semester to understand the importance of failing or maybe just a week, every minute is a new moment we can use to stand up and dust ourselves off, preparing for what is next to come. Entering college, I found that each person was on their own unique path, but I didn’t have mine. Each path looked enticing and easy to follow, but I quickly realized which ones weren’t mine. Throughout the year, I’ve begun to form my own sense of a path. I may fall along the way, but I’m starting to realize this doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve failed.