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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Learn from Failure

Myth #9

"If you don't succeed, it's not for you."
"I can't do it."
"I got an F on the first test. That's it for me."
"I'm going to join the Army."
"I was not cut out for this."
"I'll never recover from the first semester grades."
"I'm ashamed. That's it. I quit."
"I knew I couldn't do it."
"I never was all that hot on college anyway."

Reality #9

Important lessons are learned from failures.

The most difficult semester for me was my freshman year, first semester. I had been an honor student in high school. Then came college and pre-med classes. I found myself on the lower half of the grade scale and decided to quit school and join the Marines. I even moved my clothes out during winter break to avoid embarrassing myself with my roommates. During the break, I met a US Marine who, to my surprise, discouraged me from joining up until I finished school. He probably was the best college counselor I ever had.

I didn't quit; I learned. I moved my stuff back into the dorm before my roommates returned, finished out the year, changed my major to English, graduated and later went into the US Marine Corps as an officer.

My story is not unique. Ask your parents or older friends who have gone to college, and you'll hear something similar. The message is simple. Hang in there and learn from the inevitable failures in college and in life. It's not the failure that's the big deal; it's how you respond and learn from it. If you keep making the same one over and over again, like the cartoon of the coyote chasing the roadrunner, then you need to think about a new planet to live on. Rather, if you learn and grow, that's the essence of this thing called life.

A conventional piece of wisdom says that most successful business people fail at least three times in their careers. That's because in order to be successful, you have to stretch, work outside your comfort zone, and take risks. Risks are scary but they also provide opportunities. So, if you're to be successful, you'll be taking risks. Some ventures will fail-the nature of the beast. Learn and for goodness sake, don't stop taking risks.

Survival Tips:

Learn, don't burn. When you fail, learn from it by asking yourself why it happened. Was it a scheduling problem or something more fundamental like your writing or reading skills? The worst thing to do is sit in your room stewing about the course, the professor, your roommate, or the stars. Often when faced with a failure, people blame virtually everybody and everything else rather than face up to the fact that they alone are responsible.

Don't be afraid to change your major. Don't do this lightly or without consulting people who care, but also don't be afraid to do it if you find a significant mismatch between you and your major. Remember how most majors are picked. It's Saturday night, you meet an attractive person and you ask about his or her major. The rapport is growing. The next day you're an anthropology major-although yesterday you did not know what it was, and you could not even spell it. Given this highly analytical selection process, don't be overly invested in that major. In this case, failure may just be an intelligent redirection.

Keep a sense of humor. Above all things in college, as in life, keep your sense of humor and start by laughing at yourself. You'll always have a good laugh and self-deprecation is great humor for others as well. Failure can make us all deadly serious, as if our actions would change the course of generations to come. Get over it. Look at a misstep with humor. Joke about it, as you learn from it. For your own health, learn to laugh. In fact, many studies over the years have conclusively demonstrated that laughter is the best medicine. Rent a bunch of comedies your freshman year. That's the best way I know to get a quick laugh when I'm not feeling great about a recent failure.

Great people fail. Great men and women fail. They lose elections, fall from grace. History is chock full of them. My uncle Joe is a great businessman who's had a bunch of successes and failures in his life. I think that's what makes him successful. In fact there's an old saying, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." I believe that to be true in my experience.

You can't please everyone. One sure formula for failure is trying to please everyone around you. You have to define life and success for yourself. For some who are physically challenged, success is getting up in the morning and being able to function independently. For great athletes it might mean running a four-minute mile. The definition of failure and success varies, and it's all relative. Keep yourself as the focus when drawing those boundaries.

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