Why You Need Failure to Succeed

Failure. Many of you have probably experienced it in all of its self-doubt, competency questioning anxiety-inducing glory. In high school, the only type of failure I ever thought you could experience was academic and the only success I thought you could experience was also academic. I tied my self worth to my successes and my failures, so you could see how my self-worth would be attached to a letter grade or a percentage. Therefore, the thought of failure was crippling. Grades had me crying, and the thought of delivering something sub-par haunted my dreams. I didn’t really care about what other people thought, the only person I was scared of disappointing was me. I had high standards for myself, but mostly, I wanted to be the best I could possibly be, and since I didn’t know what that was, I drove myself crazy trying to achieve largely unrealistic goals.  But something changed when I got to university. I don’t know when this switch happened, but I gradually stopped viewing my failures so personally. In fact, my failures didn’t hurt anymore. Instead, I began viewing failure as something that just “happens” and even though it was happening to me, my failures seemed to be more distanced. You would think that it’s a good thing, but I have slowly begun to realize, that for me to be successful, failure needs to hurt. For me to be able to pick myself back up and do better, I need to fall down.

In high school, I loved every subject that I took. I loved what I was learning, I loved my teachers, and there was a burning need to prove to myself that I could translate passion into success. I didn’t want to be someone who had interests but didn’t pursue them, so I made sure to do reading outside of my academics. If I didn’t understand something, I would take the time to figure it out, and a few hours later I would realize that I’ve fallen down the Wikipedia hole reading about advancement in Oncogene research, or the monetary policy of Algeria.  When I got into university, I was not prepared for how difficult it was going to be to take completely new subjects, live in a new place with my family across the world, and work while going to school. It was much harder to foster and act on the curiosity that I once had during high school.

The difference now is that for the first 2 years of my Commerce degree, I didn’t love what I was learning. My degree became something I had to get through. I questioned the relevance of this degree every day and I should’ve realized then that maybe Commerce wasn’t going to be a good fit for me. For 2 years, I went through failure after failure. Every assignment that I didn’t do well on made me question my intelligence, my self-worth, and whether I deserved to be here. Eventually, I stopped caring. Bad grades didn’t matter, going to class didn’t matter, eating, sleeping, hygiene, none of it mattered. My standards for myself had dropped to the point where I just wanted a 50, a passing grade. I started thinking “maybe I’m just not meant for school. I’m definitely not as smart as the people around me. They deserve to be here while I don’t.”

“Imposter syndrome” is the term that would typically be used to define this type of feeling, where you feel like you’re inadequate even though you’ve achieved success. However, I didn’t even feel like an imposter because I didn’t think I  had any successes to my name. I just felt thoroughly inadequate. For the longest time, I thought maybe the admissions department made a mistake accepting me into the program. I thought “I’m not like these other people. They understand this stuff and I don’t.” In January of this year, I reached a breaking point. My grades had hit rock bottom, I hated myself for being stupid, and I also didn’t think I was capable of succeeding even if I tried. I think that was the first time I had ever truly given up on myself. I had completely lost hope of ever succeeding the way I wanted to. I had accepted that I was never going to get where I wanted to be. I was never going to be one of those kids in Commerce who have a great GPA, a great job lined up for the summer, and opportunities just pouring into their laps. At that point, the only thing I felt bad about was wasting my parents’ money on my tuition.

Photo courtesy of PsychologyCompass.

However, towards the end of 2nd year, I realized that the reason I never did well in Commerce was that what I was learning didn’t fit with the type of impact I wanted to make on the world. I hated myself for not accomplishing what other Commerce students were achieving, even though I never wanted those things in the first place.  Rather, I’ve always loved science. Whether it was learning about the environment, the human body, space, anything to do with understanding my surroundings was what made me excited. Somewhere along my journey, I had forgotten what my true passions were and I was doing things that made me miserable. Not only was I not good at them, but I also reached a point where I didn’t care that I wasn’t good at what I was doing. I became numb to failure, and when you become numb to failure, you cannot succeed. 

For the past year, I have been trying to figure out what I care about and what I’m interested in. I have been lucky in that I’ve re-discovered my passion for Genetics and healing people, and that’s the reason I’ve decided to pursue a dual degree in Biology. I would like to acknowledge my privilege in having the ability to pursue my Bio degree. Not everyone has the financial means or capacity to take on a dual degree, which is why I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given. I’ve also had the opportunity to take on a few leadership positions this year, which enables me to further explore my interests more extensively. These opportunities have helped bring back meaning into my life, and I’ve begun to notice that I put more care into the work that I’m doing. While I’m not afraid of failure, these opportunities make me want to be the best I can be from the start, and if I do fail, then I would want to know how to improve.

If failure doesn’t matter to you anymore, then there is no incentive to understand why you failed, and no incentive to do better. And if failing doesn’t matter to you anymore, then I believe it is an indication that you’ve stopped caring about what you’re doing and it’s time to re-evaluate your decisions to figure out why it happened, and how to move on.