Interpreting failure and success

Graphic by Lena Yang.
Graphic by Lena Yang.

Failure: lower than 50 per cent on the course, lower than 50 per cent on the final, an inability to complete course assignments, lower than 50 per cent on the lab component, academic probation.

School is superb at reminding us what failure means. It screams at us in big letters — ‘don’t fail because if you do, bad things will happen.’ School has an extremely clear definition of what failure is. Failure is a big red F.

Midterms are our first smack in the face of the school year; don’t you dare fail. You need to succeed. Let us help you. Here’s a free course on how to succeed at school, how to succeed at a job, and how to succeed after you graduate. Let us show you how to avoid failure and achieve success.

Study harder. Get good grades. Get on the dean’s list. Pass all your courses. Graduate with honours. Get the job with the biggest paycheck straight out of school. Never stop climbing. Look at how successful you can be if you just put in the effort.

They’re not lying. With enough effort the success is achievable and comes with desirable rewards. Scholarships. Job security. People telling you how awesome you are. Money. A gold star on your diploma.

Avoid being a failure. Be the best you can be. Get that A+.

This is the part of the column where I should tell you to go ahead and fail once in a while, that failure builds character and that you don’t know who you are until you’ve failed. I should reassure you about that F you got in calculus, chemistry or economics. It’s okay.

No, actually it’s not okay. Failure should freak you out — not to the point of incapacitation — but to the point where you pull up your kneesocks, make some choices and don’t just brush it off. University is right in telling you to avoid failure.

But it’s dead wrong in telling you to fight tooth and nail for success. School has tried to define success as clearly as it defines failure and suffers for it.     Success, as defined by awards, dwells in the A- to A+ range and is achieved through multiple evenings, mornings and days of panicked study.

That’s not success; that’s dedication to nothing but education. That’s dedication to an idea of success.

That’s what makes an A average student panic at a B-. Objectively a B- isn’t failure but it feels like one. It’s why the student who studied their brains out and  got a C feels defeated.

It’s no wonder university students are mentally exhausted. Even when we’re out having fun we know we should be home studying for that midterm in a couple of days. It just hangs over our heads: study harder and get good grades. Subconscious guilt at its finest. Alcohol at its most useful.

We’ve been given a clearly defined failure to be avoided and an overwhelming definition of success to strive for. Neither seems to be working. One flunks students out and the other leaves us scrambling through assignments with no sleep and rampant cases of stress and depression.

It’s not worth all the stress, time and damage for only another grade point. Instead, wouldn’t it make more sense to still study hard but not to the point where it’s overwhelming? If you’re happy and healthy with a C+ why should we kill ourselves for a B?

Be happy with your own idea of success. Once you learn to be okay with the B- instead of the B you can take those excess hours and do something you’ll enjoy. Learn an instrument, write a book, bake the world’s best cake. Don’t accept the idea that grades define success. Ultimately, we all have to define our own ideas of success and failure because the world is quite eager to give us one if we allow it.  But if dropping my B+ to a B means lowering my stress level, having the time to learn to shred a guitar and even gets me a little sleep, then I will gladly make that sacrifice.

I’d even call it success.

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