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Why you shouldn’t be afraid of failure

If there is one thing I wish I had known as a freshman three weeks into my first semester of college, it is this: The high school attitude toward failure and the college attitude toward failure are not– and never should be– the same.

If we boil high school down to its base elements, most of us would find that the latter half of our early education placed huge focus on one thing: test-taking. Whether it was the ACT, SAT or the newest mystifying mathematical torture, exams– and performing satisfyingly on them– are a cornerstone of American high school culture.

Whether it was an issue of not understanding the material or not applying ourselves, failure was seen as more of a punishment than anything.

A low grade in a class or on a test was seen as a blemish to our permanent records or the one fatal mistake that might keep us from going to the colleges of our dreams. The stakes felt high  and cramming every morning, taking the hard classes and working to exhaustion to keep up grades did not seem like too bad a trade off to make sure that we did not fall behind.

Only when we graduated, we brought that attitude with us.

We brought with us ideas like “If I do not make an A in this class, it means I am not going to be a good engineer,” “If I do not pass this test, I will probably fail the rest of them, too” and “I got a C on the paper because I suck.”

To go into college believing that you are only doing well if you are making a high grade is dangerous, and living in that belief for any extended period of time is to sacrifice more than a sense of well-being, but the quality education you deserve.

When you are more concerned about making the grade, you are less focused on the point of the class: learning.

College is a time for learning more about different career paths and the specific tools and techniques each requires to be done in a comprehensive and efficient way. It is for picking up skills that are fun and interesting. For most, it is the end of a long career of studenthood and the start of a brand new adult world.

And that means it is OK to be an amateur, and it is OK to fail. A lot. It’s part of the process.

Consider this: The masters did not become the masters because they took an introductory course once. They are masters because they tried and failed hundreds of times over, picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and tried again. They learned from what they knew, and they learned from what they discovered they did not know.

Most of us are neither perfect nor professionals of our fields. If we were, why would we be here?

Knowing that, the vast majority of college professors do not grade critically just because they enjoy it or want to fail anyone; they are pushing their students to do the best work possible, to produce the best professionals possible. If you made a C this time, you know the criteria for a B next time. If you make a B the next time, you know a future employer’s criteria.

At the end of the day, what really matters is this: If you can walk out of a class and ask “Did I learn something I never knew before?” and the answer is yes, you are doing all right.

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