Academically, my lowest point in college was the first semester of Organic Chemistry. Even after being warned about the class by my friends, I was completely unprepared. I failed my first exam. My next test was only marginally better. With the looming threat of an “F” appearing on my transcript, I withdrew from the class and retook it the next semester. Alhamdulillah, the second time around I got an A.
So far, all the articles in this series have focused on how to excel in college. At some point, however, most of us find ourselves on the other side of the spectrum. No guide to college would be complete without discussing failure.
It’s important to know how to deal with failure because odds are, you’re going to come up against it more than once.
Minimize the damage
This is extremely important to do. Before doing anything else, before even looking at why you failed, you need to minimize the fallout from your failure. In my case, since my organic chemistry professor had a policy of dropping the lowest exam grade, I knew I still had a chance to get an A after my first failed exam. After I barely passed my second exam though, I sat down and calculated what I needed to score on each exam for the rest of the semester. I found that even if I got 100% on every other exam that semester, I was looking at a B at best. More likely, I was looking at a C if I scored in the 85-95% range. After doing these calculations, the very next step I took was to withdraw from the class. A grade of “W” on my transcript followed by an “A” the next semester looks much better than a “C”.
Evaluate how your failure is going to affect you. If you failed an exam, are you at risk for failing the course or should you continue? If you failed a class, are you at risk for not finishing your degree? You might need to email your professor or advisor and talk to them. Find out what your options are and how you can minimize the damage from a failure.
Analyze why you failed
Now that you’ve minimized the damage, your next step is to analyze why you failed. This is important because if you don’t, you’re going to end up making the same mistake and failing all over again.
- Was it a simple matter of not studying enough? If so, was it a lack of motivation or poor time management?
- Do you need to change the way you study?
- Is the class above your knowledge level?
- Do you have something in your life distracting you from your studies?
- Do you need to get different resources for the class?
It’s important to not get swallowed up by failure. Don’t internalize failure. What I mean by that is you can choose one of two attitudes:
- I made a mistake and need to overcome this failure.
- I am a failure. I can’t do anything right.
People who are successful look at failure as a discrete event. You met an obstacle and failed. Now you have to change something and either overcome the obstacle or go around it.
People who are swallowed up by failure see it as an indictment of themselves. When they fail, they see it as proof that they don’t have the capacity to succeed. People with this attitude never move beyond their first failure. After they fail, they see such a drop in self-esteem that they never again undertake something which challenges them. They never get to a second failure. They become, as described by Theodore Roosevelt in his famous speech The Man in the Arena, as one of those “cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Be grateful and don’t look back
Yes, be grateful for your failure. Know that Allah ﷻ had written for you what happened and that in it is some wisdom that you don’t know yet.
Above all else, do not look back and think, “If only I had done blank, things would have been different.” The Prophet ﷺ said,
…Seek help from Allah and do not lose heart. If anything (in the form of trouble) comes to you, do not say: ‘If I had only acted in such-and-such a way, it would have been such-and-such’, but instead say: ‘Allah has decreed, and what He willed, He has done,’ for verily, ‘if’ opens the way for the work of Shaitan.
Being grateful doesn’t mean you’re proud of your failure or that you’re happy that you failed. It means accepting that in this moment, at this specific time, you hit a roadblock that Allah ﷻ destined for you to encounter. It means reframing the failure in your mind to see it as medicine from Allah ﷻ, an indication that you need to change something in order to move forward.
Learn humility and tawakkul
The greatest lesson you can take from failure is humility and tawakkul. Whether your failure was academic, personal, or spiritual, it burns when you come up short. And in that burn is a lesson in humility. No matter how awesome you thought you were, you got beat by something as trivial as a college course. The next time you feel arrogant, you can think back to your failure and remind yourself of who you really are.
Tawakkul is part and parcel of failure. Failure reminds you that you while may have grand designs and a solidly charted plan, Allah ﷻ has a destiny written for you. And Allah is al-Latif and knows how this seemingly negative failure will reap a magnitude of benefits for you. This failure might just be your version of the well the Prophet Yusuf (as) was thrown into by his brothers.
So go out, make mistakes, and don’t get overwhelmed when you fail. Learn from it and keep moving forward.
In our last article of the series, I’ll talk about MSAs and what role they should (and shouldn’t) play in your college life. If you haven’t already, subscribe to our mailing list by clicking below and like us on Facebook to stay updated!