Failure defines who you are

So here’s a shout out to all you Honors students: You are already wonderful, now try to be you!

I’m going to write this blog in English, so it has the opportunity to reach you all. It’s scary to do so, but needs to be in English if that’s my goal. It’s as Emerson Spartz said during his presentation at the NCHC conference, teaching us something about creativity, about learning, about going viral: “Be less cowardly”. So, in his words: I’m now 0.0001% less of a coward by writing this blog in English.

But why? Why do I want to reach you?
At the NCHC conference yesterday I went to a roundtable about ‘Failing Better’. The table was filled with students of different Higher Education Institutions throughout the USA. Dr. Andrew Martino, a professor of English and director of the Honors program at the Southern New Hampshire University, led the roundtable by pointing out that we place so much emphasis on success, that failure is not an option in this world. He figured that for Honors students this must be a daily struggle, living up to all expectations, but that failing is inevitable in a real world and you need to be prepared for that, you need to learn how to cope with that.

During the roundtable I was struck by the story of a girl who told us that she wasn’t really following her dream and aspirations, cause those subjects didn’t fit in the honors program and people around her where expecting her the succeed in the honors program. I was struck by a girl who, as the youngest in her family, felt that her parents placed so much expectations on her, because her older siblings weren’t so ‘successful’ (let’s not even begin to argue this sentence!). I was struck by a girl who told us that a friend of hers didn’t take the philosophy class, because, although she was very interested in it, she might not be to good at it and it would ruin her average score which could lead to being kicked out of the honors program.

In all of these stories success, and thereby failure, is defined by the standards of others. I like to look at failure as the things that didn’t work out the way I wanted them to in order to achieve MY goals. Although it can be tougher to look at it that way (you can’t walk away from yourself), it’s also much easier. How it’s easier? Well, for one thing you can lower your own standards (believe me, that’s way easier to do than changing the entire educational system). But you can also easily talk to yourself about why it didn’t work out the way you wanted. Maybe you didn’t set the right goals (for now) because they don’t have the biggest priority for you right now, or the goal itself isn’t really what you thought it would be. Or the goals don’t really fit your talents, your time or you as a person. Maybe you didn’t put enough effort in it. Or maybe you’ve learned by trying that you actually really want to achieve this goal but you now know that it will take more time, more effort and more passion to do so than you thought when you started it.

Bottom line: failure in terms of your own goals defines who you are. It defines what you want, what you need to do to reach your goals and who you want to be. Isn’t that worth it?

Emerson Spartz told us three things at the NCHC conference. “Be less cowardly, make learning less miserable and try everything.” I believe students can make it less miserable by changing their definition of failure and success, and I believe we can help them (as faculty member, as a mother and as a part of society). We should make sure students feel save to try everything, and just like a new sweater put everything on to experience it, and by doing that defining who they are, who they want to become and what they want to do with it. Isn’t that what learning is about?

Linda van den Broek
Honorscoach and teacher at the Faculty of Healthcare
HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht


One thought on “Failure defines who you are

  1. And what I learned at a session about vulnerability and self-compassion: teachers/faculty need to be role models and show that they’re not perfect either! I was shocked by the stories of students suffering from severe psychological problems because of the high standards (they feel) they need to live up to. But how can you learn without failing? Isn’t that what learning is all about? Groeipijn dus.

    Thanks, Linda!


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