SGPsychStud: Fear of Failures in our Journey of Studying

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This is a guest article as first published on 2nd June at Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts:

I have written about 'Fear' previously, and the take-away from that post was that we should not fear new opportunities and experiences, and that we need a thirst for knowledge, curiosity, and a positive mindset so that we could truly benefit from these new opportunities and experiences.

In this post, it looks at another type of fear: the Fear of Failure.  As the Chinese Idiom goes, "失败是成功之母 (Failure is the mother of Success)", hence it has been known since ancient times (or rather the day that a person invented that idiom) that with failure, we beget success.  So it seems like there is no need to fear failure then?
For the rest of this post, I am referring 'failure' / "failing" as not performing to one's best or achieving the maximum scores one can get, rather than academically failing exams, i.e. scoring less than 50%.  

But why is it that most students in Singapore are trying to work towards excellent grades (sometimes "good" is just not good enough)? And some parents are frantically panicking for their children when their children are having exams?

My sister-in-law has also just got her 'A' levels results this year, and is in the current batch of freshmen going into university this year.  My mother-in-law, after hearing that she has been offered a place in university, was delighted that her daughter was able to go to university though this was not the course and university that she wanted at all.
I reflected on this and this was my answer.  It was purely based on a simple formula and assumption that parents of this generation's teenagers (and most probably previous generations as well) have in mind:

Good grades = Having a degree = Good job / career = Good life

This is what we call "polarised (or black and white) thinking", a common cognitive distortion as proposed by Aaron Beck.  In the above formula, this would mean that in order to have a good life, one must have good grades; on the other hand, if you do not have good grades, you will not have a good life.  Either way, it sounds really ridiculous to me.  Though the formula can be commonly found and proven right in some people, it does not mean that this is absolute truth and can be applied to everyone.  This is because at any point of the above formula, it can be proven wrong.  A person can have excellent grades, but may not want or need a degree to reach his/her life goal (thinking of how an engineering degree would do any good for someone who desires to be a chef).  With a degree, it does not guarantee a good career; that comes with sheer hard work in the job, with the degree probably being a good stepping stone towards getting the job at the very most.  A good career does not equate to a good life, as a good life comprises of too many other things, e.g. family, friends, etc.              

But why do we fear failure?  Simply because it hurts.  Students do not want to feel that pain that failing the exams bring them and the pain they get after noticing it to their parents, while parents, in their natural innate of protecting their children, do not want their children to feel that pain.  This is why all students, regardless of academically good or bad unless they have given up on themselves, study so hard and parents do the things they do to help their children in their academic paths of studying.  This could also probably explain this classic phrase:  "This is all for your own good!"

It is actually okay to fail and not achieving your possible potential best.  If given a choice, I would rather not have 100 marks for every test.  Two reasons: a) I will get bored at doing the tests, because I am getting too smart for the test, and b) there is no room for improvement for me and nothing that I can learn or develop further.  This is not good for those 'perfect' students, as this may decrease their motivation for studying, rather than enhance it further.

As mentioned above, with failure, we beget success.  But for one to do that, we must first embrace the failure, and not feel sad or discouraged by it.  Furthermore, we also need to develop a thirst for knowledge ("I want to learn more about this"), curiosity ("Why did I get this grades? What went wrong?"), and a positive mindset ("It's okay. I have done my best. I can try again.") in order to fully benefit from these failures.  This should also be taught to students and children, in order to build their resilience and their natural ability to fight that fear of failure.

Professor X in X-men: Days of Future Past (2014) probably said it best:

It’s not their pain you’re afraid of — it’s yours. And frightening as it can be their pain will make you stronger if you allow yourself to feel it. Embrace it. It will make you more powerful than you ever imagined. It’s the greatest gift we have that can bear pain without breaking, and it’s born from the most human power: Hope. 

My final advice as a person who have gone through the same realistic path of studying in Singapore: 

"Fail and try all you want in non-examinable trials, but when you only get one try to perform at your best, make sure you do your 100% best.  But even if you fail, try again.  Keep trying till you succeed.  Because the only failure you can get is when you give up." 

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