How to Overcome Failure This Finals Season

Finals aren’t final, so don’t let taking an L get you down this finals season. Use these steps to work through any failures you encounter with a positive spirit and remind yourself that you are absolutely fantastic!

Step Back and Take a Breath

It was the day that I was going to get my midterm paper back. I’d always prided myself on being able to write well enough that assignments like this didn’t intimidate me, so when I flipped to the last page and saw my grade scrawled across the bottom, my stomach dropped. This paper was worth a significant portion of my grade, and my professor had already told us there would be no revision option. I pictured myself walking angrily into her office later that day to tell her how unfair I believed the grade to be, but as we were leaving she announced that her office hours would be postponed until the following day and that she would not be answering any emails concerning the paper for the next 24 hours. 

At first this approach confused me. She was only delaying the inevitable stream of disgruntled students who would come to haggle her for better grades--wasn’t she? But, as it turned out, she wasn’t. A night of sleep and some careful rereading of my paper later led me to realize that her critiques were all valid and that, as upsetting as it had initially been to me, my grade was merited. When I finally met with her for office hours, my bad grade didn’t seem as big and life-ruining as it had when I first saw it.

The moral of the story is, when you’re faced with failure--whether it be a bad exam or an unsuccessful lab--you are inevitably going to be upset, angry, or sad. Let yourself be! But don’t channel those negative feelings into negative actions. Recognize what you’re feeling and let yourself come to terms with your failure in its own time. Go back to your dorm and take a nap, bake some cookies or exercise and take time to think (not stress!) about your failure. The next couple steps will help guide you through this challenging time:

Learn From Your Failure

In history classes, I learned that omissions teach me as much about a primary document as its words and contents do. This is a hard lesson to take in, especially when I’d always focused on what documents explicitly told me and ignored all the things they didn’t. However doing this, as any good history professor will tell you, only reveals a tiny sliver of the truth that can be gleaned from a document. In order to do good research, you must read silences as thoroughly as you read words. It’s like learning a whole new language, and like any language, it takes time and practice to perfect.

Learning from failures is just like learning to read silences: it takes some adjustment. It’s likely that you’ve spent most of your life taking lessons from your successes and trying to quash down your failures and their effect on your life as much as possible. Just like only reading the words in history, learning from successes alone can only teach you so much. You may find a lot of things out about yourself from your failures. Ask yourself why you failed: Was it because you chose to spend time with friends instead of studying? Or was it because, perhaps, your heart isn’t fully invested in what you’re doing? Think then about what this failure means to you: Is it telling you that perhaps this major isn’t the one for you? That you need to change approaches next time you tackle a similar problem? Figuring these questions out is the first step to overcoming your failure.

Appreciate the Ways You’ve Grown

When I began my first semester at ND, I was determined to graduate as an economics major. My family was pushing me to apply for Mendoza and be a business major, but I felt like I would be more at home in the College ofrts and Letters. So, economics was our middle ground. I think it hit me when I sat down to take my first final that I was not cut out for economics. I wasn’t able (or motivated) to retain any of the concepts, and the exam questions looked like gibberish to me. I was disappointed because I thought that I had spent an entire semester not growing or learning anything new. It took a while of disregarding the subject  entirely before I realized that, even though I wasn’t good at economics, I’d gotten a lot better at understanding economics than I had been before. Maybe it wasn’t A+ material, but by comparing myself at the beginning of the semester to myself at the end, I realized how much I’d actually taken from the class.

Take a moment and imagine yourself at the beginning. What have you gotten better at? Don’t measure your progress by its letter grade; instead measure it against yourself--you’ll see much more clearly how far you’ve come. Even if you weren’t able to progress fast enough to succeed when the time came, don’t be discouraged. Recognize that growth takes time and make sure to give it the time it deserves and requires! 

Put it in Perspective

There have been hundreds of times that I’ve failed and thought it was the end of the world just because I hadn’t succeeded. I’ll stumble through a presentation I hadn’t prepared well for or miss that return serve by a mile. I’ll do poorly in a class I need for my major. Then inevitably, I’ll agonize over it long, long after everyone else has forgotten about it.

For times like these, it’s important to remember to put your failure in perspective. It may seem silly and unnecessary to remind yourself that in the long run everything will work out, but doing so will help you understand how silly and unnecessary your stress is. One failed exam or botched play or unfinished project won’t matter in five or ten years. Think about what will still matter and focus on that to help you realize how small and insignificant your failure is in comparison to life’s big problems. If it still seems big and scary, this is the point where a full night of sleep will come in handy to clear your head. If it’s not the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning, it’s not important! Recognize that and resolve to do better next time.

Get Back on the Grind

Probably the hardest part of failure is picking yourself up afterwards and getting back to the grind. Chances are, life hasn’t stood still around you as you worked your way through these steps. It’s just waiting for you to jump back in, and the most important part of getting ready to do that is to resolve to do it with a positive attitude. Don’t just go back to the grind; let your failure inspire you to get on top of the grind and work a little harder the next time you’re facing failure. Keep in mind the things you’ve learned from your failure and the ways you’ve grown despite it.  

Work to cultivate those lessons and develop strengths in the weeks and months to come. You may have failed this time, but by working through your failure and seeing it in a more positive light, you’ll be more likely to succeed next time.  Most importantly, always remember: you are so much more than your successes and failures!

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Photos: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.