The Perfect Student: Permission to fail

Thanks to amboo who? on FlickrLet’s make it clear, I don’t want you to fail, I don’t expect you to fail, and if we’re talking about your viva or any exams, it would be a really smart move not to fail...

But if you always succeed, you may simply be playing it safe and not learning a really important lesson – how to bounce back and try again.

I reckon you have permission to fail if you:

  • Try things you’ve never done before
    This is how you’ll stretch yourself, find out what you’re really capable of, and potentially set yourself apart from other job applicants.
  • Fail early and learn fast
    Spot when things are going wrong & know when it’s time to stop and start again – and don’t repeat the same mistakes.
  • Do what you can to reduce the cost of failure
    Fail when it doesn’t really matter (remember what I said about your viva…) and lean on your most supportive friends to put any failures into perspective.

Are you “The Perfect Student”?

As a postgrad, you’re a high achiever, and there’s a lot of pressure on high achievers to be perfect. Some of this may have come from schooldays – teachers or parents focusing on the one or two subjects where you didn’t achieve the top grades they came to expect as normal from you. These days, the pressure’s more likely to come from yourself.

“Perfect” can be very limiting though, in several ways:

1. Constantly aiming for perfection
This can mean you never quite finish something, or take an inordinately long time to deliver the perfect product. This time-stealer can leave you exhausted, with no time left over for more pleasurable activities – or even worse, more important activities.

Recognising when “good enough” is acceptable is a really important skill, particularly as you head into the workplace. If your standard is “perfect”, then you’re not in a good position to judge when something is “good enough”. You need feedback from others who also produce good work, but who always seem to have more time on their hands than you.

Nurture any friends who seem to do this with ease and pay them the compliment of asking for their feedback and support. Have a look at our handout on “Asking for Feedback” (pdf) for advice on how to do this.

2. Giving up at the first sign of failure
This is also known as “I’m no good at networking” (when your first attempt leads to a brush-off), “I’ve tried getting jobs in X but it’s no use” (after zero response to your two, count ’em, two applications) or “I can’t do interviews” (after one solitary rejection).

Finding jobs in a competitive job market demands effort and multiple applications and you’re unlikely to be perfect at your first attempt.

You can reduce your cost of failure by starting your job search in plenty of time, so you can make your mistakes early, ask for feedback, improve your technique and hopefully be match-fit just in time for when you really need a job.

Wouldn’t it be better if your first couple of interviews were for jobs you didn’t really want, where you could practise your technique without worrying about the outcome? Sure, some employers might not like this – but they always interview more people than they have jobs for. You’re just testing out more jobs than you need!

3. Not trying because you might not succeed
This might be responsible for that lack of crucial transferable skills on your CV. If you only try things you know you’ll be good at, you’ll never learn anything new. Of course you’re learning lots on your degree, but so is everyone else. The ones who will stand out are the ones who have the courage to try stuff outside the norm.

Personally, I’d aim for activities where the cost of failure is damaged pride rather than loss of life or limb. Put in place recovery mechanisms, like friends who know you’re trying something new, and who will cheer you on, or cheer you up, whatever the outcome – and have a go. At worst, you’ll have a great answer for the tricky interview question, “Tell me about a time when you didn’t succeed”.

The importance of bouncing back

The work we’ve been doing on employability has really highlighted the importance of being able to persevere and bounce back after setbacks. From the undergraduates we’ve looked at, being resilient seems to be one of the defining behaviours of those who get into good graduate jobs quickly, and I suspect that postgrads aren’t any different.

If you need any more support in developing your ability to bounce back, have a look at our postgraduate careers guide to “How to recover from setbacks“.


Post Script

“It’s all very well for you, writing all this stuff … Little Miss Perfect, huh!”

Exactly! I’m just writing what I wish someone had told me thirty years ago. That “right first time” mentality never really leaves you but it does get easier. Even so, you’ll probably still need the odd shove in the right direction.

My inspiration for this post was my lovely new sewing machine, and discovering that one technique I wanted to use (free-motion quilting, to get technical for all you crafty-types) is “Impossible – I just can’t do it. I’m no good with my hands. I’ve never been able to sew in a perfect (ooh, warning sign) straight line, never mind flowing curves.”

That is, until I found a great blog post and video showing how everyone starting out makes a pig’s ear of their first attempts. Their message?

It’s normal, it’s OK and to get through it, you just need to practise, practise, practise.

So, like learning my scales or my times tables, I’m trying to sew row after row of curvy lines, every night. I’m still rubbish (stop that right now!) but you know what? It is better than it was a couple of days ago. Wish me luck.

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