Seeing Failure Differently

It was late July 2012, and Britain was caught up in the hype of Olympic fever. I had sat down to watch the gruelling men’s road race on the television even though I (and many others) had by now assumed that the result was a forgone conclusion, after all, Great Britain had the best team of cyclists any of us had ever seen (in fact Mark Cavendish claimed that this was the ‘dream team’). Things started well with Cavendish, Wiggins, Froome, Millar and Stannard (all giants in the cycling world) sticking strictly to their plan, keeping together and maintaining a winning momentum. This was it… GB gold was already in the bag.

Of course it wasn’t to be. Golden boy Mark Cavendish finished 29th while Kazakhstan’s Alexandre Vinokourov grabbed the gold medal. It’s one thing to fail to achieve your own goal, but when the goal is shared by a nation, it must become unbearable. What made it worse was that it was probably the success of the team previously which led to this one failure; the strategy had worked at the World Championships and in the Tour de France so all the other teams (and pretty much the entire world) knew what Team GB were planning to do. Nobody wanted to race Cavendish down the Mall to the finishing line because they knew they would come second, so few teams helped GB in the earlier stages by keeping up the pace (as is the usual tactic) and in the end they also lost out.

World-class athletes probably know more about failure than any other individual because the entire life of an athlete is based around winning. It’s also about looking at failure in a way that allows them to win next time, or the time after that. This started me thinking about how ordinary people cope with failure and if all people view failure in the same negative light. We all fail sometimes, some of us give up while others carry on undaunted. I see it all the time in my teaching and often wonder if schools are so busy telling students they must succeed that they forget to teach them how to cope with failure (and how to use failure to their advantage). Cavendish certainly didn’t give up and Wiggins went on to win Olympic gold in the Time Trial, yet I can’t help wondering how they managed to put this earlier failure behind them.

I wrote something similar a few weeks later on my Guardian blog. The blog entry went online on the 16th August, the day A-level results were released in the UK, and attempted to discuss how we could compare failure in exams with the failure experienced by Olympic athletes. To be honest, the argument didn’t carry particularly well but did, in a limited way, try to bring some rather complex interrelated threads together in a piece about how we need to allow our children to fail. Teenagers especially are dealing with a multitude of situations and emotions, there are issues with family and friends and their self-esteem is at its most fragile. Some will easily bounce back from setbacks; others will take more of a beating while most will try all they can to safeguard their sense of self. By the time I published The Emotional Learner in 2017, I’d progressed in my ideas of success and failure, but I felt there was still a great deal more to say.

Cycling Again

Fast forward to September 2019 and the cycling world championships are being held in my hometown. I’m standing only a few metres away from the finish line for the Women’s Junior Road Race. I catch sight of the leaders coming over the crest of the hill on Parliament Street as they prepare for the sprint along West Park. They include Sweden’s Wilma Olausson who’s looking like she may be in with a chance. As the group passes me a couple of the front riders go down, hitting the ground hard. Olausson becomes entangled momentarily in the chaos that ensues and it’s clear there is a problem with her bike. As she passes it over the barrier to a waiting mechanic, she’s more than aware of the other contenders passing her, her face displaying obvious frustration. It seems to take an age for the mechanics to pass the bike back to her, but when they do Wilma gets on and continues her journey to the finish line. Wilma was just 19 at the time, not much older than the young people I’ve taught over the years. She didn’t give up, even when things appeared hopeless.

Wilma Olausson at the UCI championship, Harrogate, 2019.

In 2019 I was still writing my new book, Becoming Buoyant (due out in June), an exploration of how we can help students to cope with the day-to-day hassles and setbacks that befall them, so failure plays a major part in people’s ability to bounce back. The book is the culmination of nearly a decade of work, from my life as a teacher, a researcher and from personal experience. All of us have failed in some respect and it’s not just exams or sporting events that result in our plans diverting from the expected or hoped-for outcomes.

Role models are useful, especially those that display a tendency to conscientiousness and hard work rather than ones seen as innately talented (as researchers from Penn State researchers have recently concluded). Highlighting the setbacks faced by athletes like Wilma or writers who have suffered one rejection after another before becoming successful (note: Stephen King’s On Writing is a must read in this respect) is more effective than, say, Einstein or Mozart. There’s no doubt that the latter faced setbacks and worked hard, but they are often cited in respect to their genius rather than their determination.

Accept and Bounce Back

Stressing that it’s okay to fail is only part of it; we then need to help students use these experiences in a positive and constructive way. Of course, it’s not just about students; we all need to know what to do when our plans are scuppered. However, in a society where exam results are so highly regarded and success is often measured in how many qualifications you have, it becomes even more important to think carefully about those youngsters who struggle to meet the high standards society, parents and themselves has set. Giving youngsters permission to fail is just the beginning and telling them to work harder becomes part of the problem rather than part of the solution because they still don’t always know how to succeed or how to bounce back when they fail.

This ability to bounce back (known as academic buoyancy) plays a major role in academic success. Those students who are said to be buoyant share several attributes that appear to assist them, known as the 5Cs. But we can also use the 5Cs outside academic settings; a means to which we can reach our goals and lead more fulfilling lives. The original model of academic buoyancy was developed by Australian Educational Psychologist Andrew Martin following extensive studies of the attributes more likely to result in academic success.

The Original 5Cs

C #1 Confidence or self-efficacy. If we have confidence in our ability to complete a given task, then we tend to work harder and persist for longer because we realise that, in the end, we can achieve.

C #2 Coordination or planning. Setting goals and breaking these down into sub-goals allows us to mark out our journey from where we are to where we want to be. This would include skills including time management and the formation of useful habits.

C #3 Control is perhaps the factor that is most related to setbacks because it includes notions of how we attribute failure. For example, is failure specific to a certain task, or do we assume that if we fail at one task we will fail at everything? Or, do we believe that failure is a permanent fixture of our lives (I always fail) or that it is specific to time, place and task (I failed this time, but next time I’ll succeed).

C #4 Composure or low anxiety is another important factor in academic buoyancy. Anxiety results in all sorts of negative behaviours (although it can also help us, so long as it remains within certain parameters). Anxious students score lower in tests, perhaps because it leads to less effective working memory. Furthermore, anxiety and its related components (e.g. worry, status-quo bias, procrastination) can impact our daily lives beyond academic settings.

C #5 Commitment (or conscientiousness, grit and all those other constructs that seem similar to each other). This is, in part, related to personality. However, we can learn to be more conscientiousness, committed or ‘gritty’.

In Becoming Buoyant I add a sixth C — Community. People rarely exist in isolation and often it’s other people and processes that help to push us forward and challenge us. Schools are a good example of this. Studies into resilience conducted over the past 50 years or so have found that factors within the community, such as schools, teachers, youth workers and religious institutions can provide the support that help young people thrive in adverse situations. Community takes academic buoyancy beyond the individual and into the world.

Emphasising these six components and breaking them down into their constituent parts allows us to concentrate our efforts on those factors that are more likely to help us cope with setbacks and, therefore, succeed in the long term. In addition, this helps us to build psychological capital — the skills and attitudes that we can adapt for different situations and help us thrive. Failure is, therefore, never the end result and setbacks are rarely insurmountable.

Becoming Buoyant: Helping Teachers & Students Cope with the Day to Day will be published by Routledge on 24th June 2020. You can pre-order now.

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Marc Smith

Marc Smith

Chartered Psychologist. Behaviour Change. Becoming Buoyant — out now https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0367441624