At this year’s convocation, Kenneth Sng stood before Washington University in St. Louis’ Class of 2020 and told them the truth — they will fail. Somehow, someway, each of them won’t get the grade, the title, the internship they expected.
Sng should know. Yes, he has stellar credentials. Sng, a senior, is president of Student Union, a gifted student in mathematics and economics in Arts & Sciences, and a residential adviser.
But Sng also knows failure. Between 2011 and last spring, he failed his driver’s test six times.
“After a while it got to my confidence,” Sng said. “Most of my friends would try to console me. They’d say, ‘Don’t worry about it; it’s just a driver’s test.’ That only made it worse.”
But Sng persevered. On the seventh attempt, he passed.
“I don’t know what made that attempt different. The important thing was that I tried one more time,” Sng said.
“My father always says, ‘Pick yourself up where you fall.’ That’s what I did,” he said.
That’s good advice, said positive psychology expert Tim Bono, assistant dean for assessment and analytics, and a lecturer in psychological & brain sciences in Arts & Sciences. He said Sng is right — first-year students do stumble, frequently during that first round of midterms. What matters, Bono said, is how they respond.
“Some students will say, ‘I’m clearly not supposed to be here, I don’t have what it takes,’ ” said Bono who, himself, is no stranger to failure. “Those students often also have trouble pushing past disappointment in their personal or academic lives.”
Other students will pick themselves up where they fall.
“Those students will say, ‘OK well, now I know what a college exam is like’, or ‘I now understand how to approach this relationship issue differently,’ ” Bono said. “They feel just as disappointed in their setbacks as the other students, but instead of being completely defeated by them, they reflect on them and come up with another approach.
“Learning to accept and grow from failure will be one of the most important lessons they learn as first-years.”
The Fail Better series showcases Washington University staff, faculty and students who have failed big — sometimes in very public, humiliating ways. Despite the disappointment, they all learned vital lessons about themselves and their work. View all the stories in the series here.