Is failure not an option

‘Failure is not an option’: This is a strong statement which evokes many fearful thoughts in many
people. Indeed, living with this powerful belief myself prevented me from trying new things or even
trying to do my best- whether it was doing school work or learning new skills. I did not learn to ride a
bicycle until I was in my 40s!
In my line of work, the success of students, and thereby their institution, is identified by how
‘successful’ the students are academically, as measured by their examination and other assessment
results. This happens everywhere no matter if the pupil attends school in rural China or in urban
London. The funding for schools and universities is often allocated according to ‘league’ tables which
fundamentally rely on the results of such assessments, subject to all sorts of weightings designed to
account for influences such as family wealth and geographical location. “But we need some kind of
tool to assess how well these educational establishments are doing”, I hear you say.
In my 30 years of working in an HEI I have met many talented, motivated and dedicated students.
They are young and full of hopes and dreams. Inevitably, one day one of them might come to see
me, head hanging low, saying how they have failed their course and that “they can’t do it”. “OK”, I
say, “so how did you get here today? How did you get into University? How did you know which
room I was in?” They look at me as if I have three heads! They then proceed to tell me how they got
here and their past achievements. Then I ask, “so you are a failure then?” and the response comes,
“No… not really.”
Another time they may come in saying “Ahhh you must think I’m stupid, I didn’t make this or that
product in my experiment, I have failed”. “Oh”, I say, “but you got a product – just not what you
were expecting! Who said you’re a failure?” and they reply “oh my mum/dad/teacher at my
school/friend said …” etc. etc.…
Failure is not an option for them because their idea of success or achievements is based not on their
own expectations and beliefs, but on someone else’s. How do I know this? Because I have used the
for myself and for the student in front of me, I no longer neither fear falling off the bike nor do I
see students as failing – they simply got results they were not expecting!
Why does this matter? Students are not numbers or data about the exam results; they have talents
and skills in other areas that are just as important and more relevant to living a purposeful and
joyous life. Graduating with a first-class degree may be a nice accolade but it does not guarantee a
happy and fulfilling life afterwards. More than any academic success, students are people with their
own feelings and desires. I don’t see students as people who must be filled up with knowledge for us
both to succeed, I see individuals who have a lot to say and a lot to contribute. I have met many
inspiring individuals who despite the challenges life throws at them somehow succeed in studying
and graduating with big smiles on their bright faces. They really are effective at living their lives and
to me this is true success. It is not a matter of academic failure or achievement but of experiencing
in joy their time at university as fully as possible.
So good luck to you all of you who think you have failed – you may find you have discovered a
miracle cure from your ‘failures’. After all many scientific and engineering discoveries are born out of
so-called failure – just think of penicillin, pacemakers and post-it notes to name a few of the most

Is failure not an option. 16 Oct 2021
Finally, I would like to leave you with one of my favourite quotes from Mary:
“In this world of perfection, I hope you will make many mistakes, for in the making of mistakes you
are making you.”

Jacqueline Mary Phillips

Dr M Howard-Kishi

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