21. Epic Fail: How to Learn from Failure and Transform It into Success

Failure— just the word can freeze you in place. College is not a time when you want to think about failing; after all you were successful enough in high school to have gotten into college— you’re used to succeeding. This module looks at some of the things that can cause college students to feel like they’re failing, and goes on to suggest how to use that situation as an experience to learn and grow. If you find that the questions and brainstorming prompts in this module trigger something in you, jot down some notes in the boxes provided, and think about how you can transform your experience of failure. 

I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life—and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do. 

-Georgia O’Keeffe

Nearly every college student experiences a moment when they feel like they’re facing failure, often for the first time. Notice that I said “feel like.” Typically they’re not really failing; it just seems that way at the time. The thing is, even when we are capital “F” Failing, whether it’s academically, or just seriously falling short of our expectations for ourselves, what says the most about us—and what we remember about the experience of surviving that period—is how we react to failure.  Because the most successful people around aren’t the people who didn’t fail, they turned themselves around and became stronger than they were before.

Failure Factors

Rigid thinking

For many students, life is pretty controlled until they reach college. They take the classes that they’re supposed to take to get into college. They excel in extra-curricular activities. They may have even thought that they knew exactly what they were doing and how they were going to get there. The risk there is if you’re one of those people who always follows a plan—and that plan ends up being too rigid—somewhere along the line, you may begin to see cracks. It may be that first D (or, for some people, that first B+, which feels like a D). It may be discovering you’re not the most talented singer in the choir any more. Or it might be not making the cut to get into the class, club, or group you planned on belonging to when you first applied to school.

Learning From Failure

Everything we’re going to say here may sound a bit like a cliché, but there’s a reason these words of advice have been repeated so often—they’re undeniably true. So do us—and yourself—a favor, and read on with an open mind; these are our suggestions for how to turn a potential failure into a fabulous opportunity.

Stretch Yourself

No one ever grew into more than they were without pushing the boundaries of their comfort zone. To stretch yourself and reach possibilities you never even knew existed, begin with small steps and say yes to things that make you uncomfortable. Allowing yourself the freedom to fail lets you learn from your failures. When you’re too cautious, you don’t take risks. If you play it safe all the time, then you are not giving yourself the opportunity to grow.

Experience Is The Best Teacher

Failure can be a wonderful teacher. By screwing up and making mistakes we often learn how to do it better the next time. These hard-won lessons help you understand what needs to change and how you can create a different experience the next time. How to fail—and try again—is one of the most important lessons you can learn in college.

Ask for Support

There is a creative tension that exists between opposites. Tapping into the creative tension between success and failure can actually motivate you to succeed. When you’re overwhelmed by possibilities, don’t get paralyzed into inaction. Seek out your on-campus advisors and support groups to help you explore what can be learned from the situation you’ve found yourself in and find solutions. With a little help from people who have turned failure into success many times before, you can use the tension you feel to stretch you into your best self. And someday, you may look back and see this particular “failure” as the beginning of your successes, and the best thing that ever happened to you.

When a crack opens in your plan, it’s important to see it as a pothole, not a sinkhole—a nuisance, not a life-and-death situation. One of the first steps in managing failure is learning to manage your expectations. Rigid thought about life being only a certain way sets you up to fail. College is a great place to learn to suspend your judgments and open up to the possibility of many outcomes. If you look at your new, ambiguous situation as an opportunity, it can be freeing—if you’re not always going to be the top of your class, the best player on the team, or whatever it was that defined you in the past, what else are you going to be? It can be pretty liberating to realize that you’ll survive—and even thrive—without the label that was once attached to you. If you’re not JUST that one thing you were known for, you can be any number of things. Now’s the time to find out what.

Fear of going beyond your bubble

Stepping into unknown territory and going beyond the bubble of your comfort zone is scary because you enter the zone of uncertainty, where you don’t know if you are going to succeed or fail. If you take a class in a topic that’s not your area of expertise, you might not ace it. You might even fail it. Or you might do just OK but discover a new passion. If you ask your crush to grab coffee, you might get rejected. Or you may get to know the love of your life. Usually, what happens is somewhere in between—you turn out not to be a gifted mathematician, but you realize you really enjoy statistics. You don’t find your life partner, but you make a friend. Or you get turned down, but survive and ask out your new crush the following week. The specifics don’t matter as much as the underlying principle: If you want to have an amazing life, you need to travel beyond what you know. Try new things. Love them, hate them, ace them, fail them, just learn from them—and about yourself. You don’t want to be that person who never grew and changed, the alum at the 20-year high school reunion that speaks of high school as the glory days because that is the best life ever got.

Failure to recognize your individual self

Part of the reason we take risks is to discover aspects of ourselves that have yet to be explored. The adventure in life is discovering who you are–not just who your family wants you to be or what your professors expect of you. One of the biggest failures in your life would be for you to spend your whole life trying to live up to someone else’s image of who they think you are or should be, living as someone that you are not. There is a freedom to experiment with who you are when you go to college and are away from your family and lifelong friend’s perceptions of you—even if you liked those perceptions, you may discover that you’re all that and much more as well. 

Not creating your own social life

Not having an established group of friends in college can feel like a huge failure. Whereas in high school you may have just found yourself hanging out with people by default—your neighbors, say, or the other students in your class—college is a time when you need to make an effort to get to know new people. We love social media, but it’s all too easy to rely on social media sites to keep in touch with your old friends instead of making new ones. Facebook is great, but we all need the in-the-flesh, hang-out-together sort of friends who share your interests and like you as a person.

We’re not saying you need to join sororities or fraternities or make it your goal to be the most popular student on campus; we’re just urging you to find your tribe of friends rather than settling for a virtual social life online. College is a time to find like-minded groups of people, or even just one other person, to explore your interests; or to discover people who are unlike anyone you’ve ever met before, and share new interests and experiences with them, learning from your differences. Social isolation has become a big problem across all demographics as people choose to be online instead participating in social activities. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone and go to group meetings, sign up for an outdoor adventure trip, participate in an on-campus event, but find some human point of connection and build a new social structure.

Failing classes

Failing classes can definitely feel like the ultimate let-down—especially if you’re the kind of person who never even got a “C” in high school and now you need to tell your parents about an “F” on your semester grades. It sounds obvious, but college is harder than high school for many of us, and your study habits may need to be upgraded to your new level. If you find yourself unable to keep up with your classwork, reach out to your academic advisor and find the support that you need. You’re definitely not the only student on campus in this situation, and there are resources to help those who are struggling academically, from advisors to study groups to writing centers to counselors—take advantage of them.

Choosing the wrong course of study

As your college path unfolds, you may find yourself wondering why you are spending all this time on the classes that you are taking, having days when nothing feels all that interesting and you can’t imagine how you will use this material in your life. Again, you’re not alone—this feeling is a common problem. Many students expend a lot of energy browsing websites, looking at brochures, and doing campus visits to choose the right college but don’t spend much time at all picking a major. Studying the wrong thing can feel like failure, but it’s not—it’s just being off course temporarily.

If you feel you’re not pursuing the right major and want to explore your options, visit the module “Pick a Winner! Choosing the Major that’s Right Best for You.” And don’t despair! What’s important is that you find courses that feel like a fit for who you are and who you want to be.

Partying, drinking, and drugs

College is a time of freedom and of experimentation—which is a good thing. But if you’re experimenting with too much partying, drinking or drugs that can really derail your academic career and your entire life. Studies often cite lack of funds as one of the main reasons students drop out of college, but an often unnamed reason many students leave school is that they’re unable to think or to deal with the discipline of college when it takes all their energy just to recover from the night before. Keep your partying under control, and if you feel it is beginning to control you, seek help. Talk to a residential advisor, on-campus counselor, or seek out on-campus addiction programs; they’re there to offer help and support, not judgment.

Module 21 | Epic Fail: How to Learn from Failure and Transform It into Success