Overcoming failure

From this month, students around the country will be hearing back from UCAS on whether or not they have been made an offer to study their chosen course at their preferred university. For many this will be a time for relief and jubilation, however, there will be come who will be facing the disappointing feeling of failure. Ten years ago, I was that student.

In 2010, I was awaiting results from my university applications. I had applied to study Aeronautical Engineering at Imperial, Bristol, Loughborough and Southampton. However, a few years earlier, I had also visited Cambridge as part of a school trip intending to raise aspirations. With my aspirations raised, I had put down Cambridge as my first choice. When I learned that I had failed to even get an offer to study Engineering at Cambridge, I was devastated. In that moment, I felt like a failure. I felt that I had disappointed my parents and that I would never succeed. I cried.

Failure is an event, not a person.

Zig Ziglar

Thinking back to this moment, it was important that I accepted my feelings and expressed them. I was sad, angry and vented my frustrations to my close friends and parents. Not only were they instrumental in supporting and comforting me during this time, but they were also able to provide the first steps towards positively framing what had happened. Of course I had to accept what had happened, but this allowed me to find things to be grateful about too.

Once the initial disappointment of failure had passed, I had to take time to reflect on what had happened and refocus. I knew what I wanted to study and that had not changed. There were still the other universities that I had applied to; other opportunities to succeed. Instead of lamenting on my Cambridge outcome, I decided to learn from it. Although I had strong mathematical skills, my area of weakness was interview performance. I thought about what went well and what could be improved with my interview. Through this reflective process, I was able to dissect my poor interview performance and pick out things that I could improve going forward.

My next interview was at Imperial, and it presented an opportunity to put what I had focused on into practice. I felt more confident of myself and better prepared overall. This meant that my performance was considerably better than that in Cambridge. However, this was not that clear to me at the time and I was only truly relived once I had received an offer to study Aeronautical Engineering at Imperial.

If it was easy, someone else would have done it already.

Clive Siviour

I subsequently accepted this offer and had an amazing time over the four years at Imperial. I truly believe that without the failure I experienced with my Cambridge rejection, I would not have grown as much as a person over that same time period. This was of course not the only failure I faced. It took me 45 job applications before I successfully got an internship. A little known fact is that I also applied to study in the USA having applied to MIT, Harvard, Stanford and Yale. It is little known, since I obviously failed to get an offer from any of those institutions! As a teacher, I failed on almost a daily basis. Through these failures, I learned to adapt dynamically to the needs of my students and better serve them.

Ten years after I got rejected by Cambridge, I have degrees in Aeronautical Engineering and Education, I have taught over 400 students many of whom are now studying at amazing universities (including a few at Cambridge!) and I now tutor and lecture undergraduate students at the University of Oxford.

Anyone who wants to do something of value in life will fail. As my PhD supervisor would say, “If it was easy, someone else would have done it already.” These wise words will not only stick with me forever, but this quote should become a mantra to anyone dreaming big. Failure only breaks you if you let it.

Key takeaways:

  1. Accept your feelings: anger, sadness, whatever they are, find someone close to talk to and vent. Use this support network for initial comfort.
  2. Just because you failed doesn’t mean you’re not good enough… you’re just not good enough yet. The road to success is long and difficult so focus on the process and not the outcome.
  3. Find time to reflect on your failure and understand why you failed. Be brutally honest, and this process will help you grow and avoid making these same mistakes again.
  4. Refocus and make a plan of action on how you’re going to take what you’ve learned from the reflective process and apply it.
  5. Be positive and grateful for what you do have instead of lamenting. Positive framing and adopting a better mindset will take you a long way.
  6. Find internal motivation for your ambitions. You do not want validation for your talents, just improvement. Do something because you love and value it and not to gain the approval of others.

– Akash