Let’s normalize failure.

Finally, after compulsively refreshing my email all morning, the message arrived. It read: I’ve got good news and bad news.

This was not the email I was expecting.

I was midway through my PhD program and had been awaiting the results of my comprehensive exam. In my program – as is the custom with many PhD programs – I had to pass a comprehensive exam in order to move from the coursework phase to the dissertation phase. After a few years of managing my studies while working full time, it all came down to a two part take home writing assignment. I had a few days and 24 pages to prove that I was the scholar that I was aspiring to be.

The email continued: You passed the first section, no problem. There were no issues with the first section. But there were problems in the second section, and you did not pass that section.

Public Failure

The news hit like a punch in the gut. I wasn’t the kind of person who fails an exam, especially not one this important. This was a new sensation. The sinking disappointment. The self doubt. Then came the the growing realization that in the coming days, my friends, family, co-workers, and classmates would soon be asking me, “How’d you do in your comps exams?” I was going to have to tell everyone that I failed in something that really (and I mean really) mattered to me. I had a lot wrapped up personally and professionally in this whole doctoral degree thing.

The news hit like a punch in the gut.

Our faculty assured me and my classmates that the exam was not designed to weed students out of the program. But the policy clearly stated that if you failed the exam twice, then you would be asked to leave the program. I was going to have to retake the second section of the exam. Clearly, the stakes would be higher this time around.

To make it worse, I had to wait another six months before the retake. Six months with this hanging over my head. Six months before I could prove to myself and others that I had what it took.

To pile on the angst: the next available testing date was the same as the due date for our second daughter. “Great,” I thought, “I’ll just hole myself up to write the exam that will determine my professional fate while my daughter is born!”

“You’d be surprised how often this happens.”

The week after hearing the news, I talked to my adviser about a way forward. His assuring words would stick: You’d be surprised how often this happens. Even in our own faculty department. Some of the esteemed scholars. They don’t talk about it, but some also failed their first comprehensive exam.

Failure Lab

As I reflect back on my experience, I’m reminded how much we all fail. Failure is a part of life and not something to hide in shame. We need to normalize failure. A while back, I discovered an organization called Failure Lab. Failure Lab helps people and organizations to talk openly about failure, and to “evolve failure experiences into growth opportunities.” In fact, failure can be the source of innovation.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we fail all the time. Failure can be more common than success, even among “the successful.” We don’t get offered the job. Or asked for a second interview. We botch the crucial conversation with a family member or coworker. Our great idea turns out to be not so great. Our lesson plan flops. A sermon fails to deliver. The new program doesn’t attract participants. We misunderstand our coworkers. Unfortunately, we sometimes we mislabel these experiences as larger moral or character failures.

Learned Optimism

But we can adapt our mindset to respond better to failure. Clinical psychologist Martin Seligman’s theory of learned optimism can help us. The theory goes like this: a pessimistic mindset will generalize failure. For example, someone who fails an exam would arrive to a generalized conclusion: I must not be a good writer. The specific failure is generalized to a wider percieved flaw or inadequacy. But learned optimism keeps the explanation of the failure specific. Instead, the optimist concludes: this one time, under these circumstances, I didn’t perform well. This can prevent us from getting stuck, and hep us to learn and move on. To be clear: learned optimism isn’t not ignoring reality. Instead, learned optimism is the practice of intentionally framing the story you tell yourself when interpreting your failure.

We need to normalize failure. Failure is a part of life and not something to hide in shame.

Failure can drive personal growth.

One of the striking practices of Failure Lab is that presenters tell their epic fail stories, but are not supposed to say what they learned. They just tell the failure. Then the audience, through crowdsourcing, helps to interpret and analyze potential lessons to glean from the fail story. But I can’t resist offering a few of my observations and personal lessons from my fail story here.

The next six months were a time of soul searching. While preparing for the retake, I had to come to a peace that even if I were to fail again and not continue the program, I would be okay. I had to be okay. Even though I had invested so much time, effort, and money. Even though I had attached my very identity to the goals I was pursuing.

Sometimes we have to learn to hold loosely to our ambitions and to be open to a life path that might not be what we expect. I was reminded that identity can’t come from achievement. The months between my exams was a time to examine my motives. I had to face it: How much of my drive for further education was wrapped up in ego and how much was a genuine desire become more equipped to serve and help others? For those of you who don’t work in higher education, I’ll let you in on a secret: we don’t need any more ego in our colleges and universities. There’s already plenty to go around, thank you very much.

Eventually, the time finally came for the retake. I’ll spare you the details, but I passed. (One week after the birth of my daughter).

In order to have honest conversations about success, we need to have honest conversations about failure.

– Failure Lab

Failure can help us to know what doesn’t work. In fact, developers and designers often adapt a Fast Fail mentality where (repeated) failure gives the chance to receive valuable feedback that enables you to learn and adapt.

In my first exam, I made the mistake of trying to put everything I had ever learned about my field into one paper. It ended up convoluted and garbled. My specific lesson: relax and make clear, simple points in my writing. Don’t overthink things. Explain a few things well.

Failing that first exam made me a better writer. It also checked my ego, and gave me a story that I now share with graduate students who are preparing for their comprehensive exams. You’ll be fine, I tell them. Even if the “worst” happens and you fail. You’ll be fine.

So let’s normalize failure and lose the stigma. Let’s adapt a mindset that can respond to failures in ways that accept the feedback as the valuable gift that it can be. What’s your fail story?

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