Dealing with failure is an essential part of life. Learning to deal with failure in a healthy, positive manner should be, too.

Advising at MIT

I’ve been an associate advisor to MIT freshmen for three years. It’s a wonderful and rewarding experience, and each year it reminds me how intelligent and capable MIT students are.

One of the most important parts of the associate advisor position is helping students deal with failure. Students who’ve made it to MIT have generally encountered few or no failures in their lives. They’re confident, competent, and cool under pressure. But then they begin classes, the MIT firehose gets pumping, and, in many cases, students find they’re doing poorly in a class they thought they would ace.

So we have an MIT student, who’s built their identity on the fact that they’re the best at whatever they do, finding themselves in the bottom quartile of a class. And that’s when it hits: the stinging, ringing, nauseating feeling of failure. The sudden realization that maybe they’re not the smartest person in any given room (generally accurate). That maybe MIT made a mistake in admitting them, they’re not actually smart, they’ll never do well at MIT, never get a job, never be successful (100% false). It’s easy to lose yourself in the failure, spiral out of control, and lose sight of what makes you awesome.

This is where the associate advisor steps in. I offer three pieces of advice.

Understand, plan, execute, evaluate

You did fail. Sugar-coating that reality is counterproductive. Recognize the failure, examine the cause, propose a solution, and alter your life so you don’t reach the same failure twice. Arrange a time in the future to revisit your plan and evaluate its execution.

You are not defined by your failures

You are neither defined nor restricted by a failure. A failure is just information. You are smart, talented, kind, and cared for. These qualities, and many more, make up who you are. Your success and your self are mutually exclusive.

Read this article on self-compassion. In short: “Here’s an unavoidable truth: you are going to screw up. Everyone—including very successful people—makes boatloads of mistakes. The key to success is… to learn from those mistakes and keep moving forward.”

Embrace the growth mindset

Read this article on the growth mindset. In short, people who believe they have the capacity to do better, learn more, or improve their intelligence tend to achieve more than those who believe they have fixed, innate talents. So take a growth mindset, and outgrow your failure.

When you dedicate a lifetime to self-improvement, no single setback can resist the continuous, formidable force of your drive to succeed.