A story of failure

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Before I begin, I wanted to give a quick shout out to Getty Images, who has released a HUGE storehouse of images (including the one above) for public use via a direct embed code. Read this Nieman story for more. 

In his 2012 TEDGlobal talk “The Self-Organizing Computer Course,” Shimon Schocken says,

I’d like to say a few words about traditional college grading. I’m sick of it. We are obsessed with grades because we are obsessed with data, and yet grading takes away all the fun from failing, and a huge part of education is about failing. Courage, according to Churchill, is the ability to go from one defeat to another without losing enthusiasm. And [Joyce] said that mistakes are the portals of discovery. And yet we don’t tolerate mistakes, and we worship grades. So we collect your B pluses and your A minuses and we aggregate them into a number like 3.4, which is stamped on your forehead and sums up who you are. Well, in my opinion, we went too far with this nonsense, and grading became degrading. (Emphasis added).

Much has been said about failure during the past decade, which has been largely marked by an invigorated launch of innovation through design thinking. Read this guest post for Forbes written by Edward Hess of the Darden Graduate School of Business for more.

Debates about student loans, critique over the efficacy of the traditional MBA and the increased availability of free education and continued learning opportunities have helped support Schocken’s critique of the state of education as it applies to professional life.

I graduated college with a 3.93 (of 4.0) and completed my graduate work perfectly, according to the GPA standard. Prior to college, I was financially incentivized to make good grades: straight A’s earned me $100 per report card, or roughly $16 per week. Getting good grades has provided a primary way for me to earn rapid validation of my strengths, but has done very little to help me overcome my weaknesses. Anyone who has consistently received high marks or positive professional reviews has likely been frustrated with the entire corporate review process. How, we think, am I supposed to grow without receiving consistent critique of my capabilities?

Failure is a popular concept today because world-class innovators and entrepreneurs have gotten to their position today through both successes and failures. For me, failure, above and beyond success, has served to motive me to grow professionally in ways I likely never would have without it.

chris bosh fail

My most memorable failure came during my freshman year in college. An aspiring biology student in pursuit of pre-med validation with a perfect score on the calculus AP exam, I entered college by enrolling in calculus. In that first week, I recognized how woefully under-prepared I was for the course. And, on the third exam, I scored a remarkable 56 percent, marking the worst score I’d ever received on any assignment ever, much less on an exam.

That score placed me on a fence I hadn’t experienced before. If I didn’t perform spectacularly on my final exam, the likelihood of failing the entire course was very high. The worst part about this reality was that the third exam was largely representative of my growth throughout the course. Math builds upon itself, and I knew immediately that I would have a very, very difficult time turning things around by the final exam simply because I”d failed to establish any noticeable foundation.

By the time of the final, I was overwhelmed with doubt about my own learning and study habits. I questioned my ability grow in knowledge and internalize the concepts necessary to pass the exam and, subsequently, the course. I knew others in the dorm who pulled all-nighters in advance of difficult exams, and I began the evening before my test considering doing the same. By 10 p.m., I was wiped out. I was having trouble completing practice problems and felt, to a large degree, that if I couldn’t get it now, the additional hours awake would, at best, deliver diminishing returns. And, since I’d never stayed up overnight before, I decided the best course was to sleep and ensure what I did know could be recalled the next morning.

On the day of the exam, it took me exactly two hours – the maximum allowable time – to finish. Since the majority of the class took the full time as well, my confidence remained low considering I perceived everyone in that class to have a greater mastery of the content.

In the day’s following, I managed to emotionally convince myself that re-taking calculus was a good thing. And then, the grades dropped. I’d received a C+ in the course. It was my worst grade ever, and although I hadn’t received the result of my exam, it didn’t take a mathematician to calculate that a C+ for the course required at least a B on the exam.

Today, I’ve still never pulled an all-nighter in advance of a major project, though I admit to some late nights. I’ve learned that my mind most clearly functions under conditions of high stress, but only if it is fresh. I’ve also learned that my ability to execute in these high stress moments is a combination of consistent preparation and internal confidence in my own abilities.

To me, failure is only failure if you let it be so. People have the capability to learn from every experience. But, exponential growth happens when one learns through failure. We’re not called to seek out opportunities to fail, but to consider the ways in which we are challenging ourselves beyond our comfort zones day after day while making tangible connections between our diverse historical experiences and the road ahead.

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