Why we must continue to challenge the ‘success and failure’ mindset

Working in higher education always brings back many memories of my university days, and this is definitely a favourite time of the year for me, as the campuses are alive with the sound of students. Of course we now have the new cohort, and so I wanted to reflect on the experiences they are going through right now.

Making the transition from school/college to university life is one of the most dramatic and daunting experiences anyone can go through. Feeling like a fish out of water, and homesickness are inevitable. But for many it’s more than the initial case of missing parents and family; other factors come into play and this new chapter becomes characterised by fear, anxiety and depression with serious consequences on mental and physical health.

I’m no stranger to this, but one of the causes of extreme stress amongst students, is the deep rooted mindset when it comes to success and failure, well highlighted in a Guardian article ‘How to help a perfectionist student.’  It was quite an alarming read, especially the reflections of one student who admitted that, “Errors mean failure, and failure means disappointment.” This is not an isolated view, for some it’s been drummed into them from families and culture. You cannot be seen to be making a mistake or not ‘performing at the top.’ And the pressure to live up to such expectations has damaging and long term effects. With 1 in 10 students having a ‘diagnosable mental illness’, universities are facing increased demand for mental health services, adding strain on existing resources.

As a nation we’ve taken a huge step forward when it comes to raising awareness of and addressing mental health issues. It’s not perfect, but we can see more people willing to speak up about it, even in cultures and communities where it has been considered a taboo subject, and something to be ashamed of. Awareness-raising campaigns, such as this week’s annual World Mental Health Day, and the work of many specialist charities and organisations, have definitely put this matter high on the agenda. University careers services often work in close partnership with disability and mental health support teams, and this is an area I am going to be focusing on this year.

But we really must continue to challenge some of the underlying causes, especially when it comes to what success and failure really mean. It’s no point just addressing these issues at university level, more needs to be done with young people. And quite rightly, this week, there are calls by Sir Anthony Seldon, the vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham and mental health campaigner, for the well-being of children to be taken more seriously by schools.  However, as much as schools may do, it’s not an easy battle when you are dealing with family pressures and cultural norms. I’m an advocate of greater dialogue between families, communities, schools, educational institutes and professionals to discuss some of these issues and through, for example, the use of mentors, role models and influential people to show that success comes in all shapes and forms, and failure is not a weakness.

Challenging and changing unhealthy mindsets and habits can be tough, but not impossible. For those starting the university journey, here are three particular thoughts that I wanted to share:

  • Potential can be developed – there is the expectation that graduates need to “have it all” when they are hired, but the reality is different. Yes, certain skills and attributes are needed for the world of work, but many firms don’t expect graduates to be the finished product, and hence will work with them to develop their potential and skills such as commercial awareness. ‘Growth mindset’ appears to be the new buzz word used by giants such as Microsoft and Google in their recruitment. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, sums this up with this fantastic quote,

“It starts with a belief that everyone can grow and develop; that potential is nurtured, not predetermined; and that anyone can change their mindset. Leadership is about bringing out the best in people, where everyone is bringing their A game and finding deep meaning in their work. We need to be always learning and insatiably curious. We need to be willing to lean in to uncertainty, take risks and move quickly when we make mistakes, recognizing failure happens along the way to mastery. And we need to be open to the ideas of others, where the success of others does not diminish our own.”

  • Rejection can redirect you – I came across this inspirational video by motivational philosopher Jay Shetty, where he tells the story of some influential individuals who faced their share of setbacks on their journey to success. The key lesson was no matter how much we struggle and the difficulties we face, we will always keep our value. Through failure, we can often achieve far greater things than imagined. When one door closes, you can be sure another one is waiting to open!
  • Look at the positives and bigger picture – last month I attended the annual AGCAS conference for HE careers professionals, and it was a really thought provoking event. The highlight for me was the keynote speech by motivational presenter and coach, Steve Head. One tip that really stood out for me was reviewing how we perceive situations and experiences. So instead of focusing on the one thing that’s gone wrong or hasn’t worked out (in this case he gave an example of a mathematical quiz), look at the positives and what is actually right! It seems obvious, but a great strategy to try and incorporate into our daily personal and professional lives.

These tips are some food for thought, but not a replacement for professional help. If you’re really struggling to cope, please don’t suffer in silence. There are people and services out there to help you. Visit your University student support team or there are a number of dedicated organisations such as Mind and Mental Health Foundation who can provide support.

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