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University of Michigan students are bad at failing. While there is no doubt that we form a community of extraordinary go-getters, it is often a fear of failure, rather than a passion for success, that propels us. In a highly-competitive academic setting, these fears may develop into chronic academic performance anxiety when left unchecked. Ironically, a formidable solution to our anxieties is to get better at doing badly. Here’s how. 

Picture yourself receiving a high grade on a test after several grueling nights of preparation. “It was all worth it,” you acknowledge, beaming. Now picture yourself failing that same test despite your hours-long commitment. Feeling the hole in your chest widening, you think to yourself, “it was all for nothing,” and you criticize yourself for not being capable enough. You dedicated the same amount of determination and labor in both scenarios. Yet, your evaluation of the worth of your labor is entirely dependent upon the final outcome. 

When our appreciation of our effort is entirely conditional like this, our sense of worth hinges on an imagined outcome that may never unfold the way we planned, no matter how much we went through in the hopes of achieving it. Subsequently, when we fail, we feel that it speaks to who we are as a person, and this outlook ultimately puts us farther away from our goals than failure itself does. 

When we permit our failures to intersect with our core sense of identity and self-esteem, we lose the ability to extend compassion toward ourselves and others. We become trapped in a painful cycle of criticism and anxiety. The underlying belief that self-worth and happiness is conditional upon a narrow view of success actually threatens our potential for success as it inhibits our ability to adapt to challenges in the future. It even threatens our ability to learn.

Performance anxiety rests on the false assumption that the most gratifying step toward a goal is achieving it. This is a misunderstanding. The final result of our successes is not the most meaningful part of our journey. Accomplishments have value because of the knowledge and skill we gain in our effort to achieve them. For example, you might not value an accomplishment that took little effort on your part, but one that took years of training and preparation is cause for immense celebration. Because the value of our hard work is actually independent from the final result, hard-earned failure can hold the same value as hard-earned accomplishment. In order to feel good about ourselves, we need to appreciate the equal value of failure. From this expanded viewpoint, we are able to honor our shortcomings and bounce back from feelings of inadequacy.  

Another challenge to our relationship with success and failure is our tendency to compare our suffering against our peers’ suffering as a metric for success. For example, when we observe our classmates pulling all-nighters and living on caffeine, we worry that we ourselves are not doing enough. 

This mode of thinking is like watching a race. As a runner reaches the finish, you notice that she had been running with a knife in her foot. You assume that she won because of the knife in her foot rather than in spite of it. When it is your turn to compete, you proceed to stick a knife in your own foot, thinking that this will aid your success. Clearly, this is an irrational and inefficient mode of approaching success. 

When we use comparison of suffering to measure success, we cultivate disingenuous motivation. This kind of motivation is founded in insecurity, anxiety-driven productivity and self-resentment. While perpetuating this negative feedback loop may lead to “success,” it leaves us feeling so dead inside that we lose the ability to enjoy and appreciate what we are working toward in the first place. The more fulfilling source of motivation is internal — it lives within us in the form of hope, passion and commitment. We can avoid undue suffering by cultivating genuine motivation. 

Constantly feeling exhausted and overworked is not a virtue. It is an inability to understand the source of success. Success is not how much suffering you can endure, but rather how much suffering you can let go of, knowing that passion and determination will be there to carry you once you let go of fear-driven perfectionism. Academic performance anxiety can be useful to give us the boosts we need in small increments, but running on it for years is draining and destructive toward our physical health, ultimately depriving us of happiness. 

Living life from a place of fear retracts from our limitless personal potential. Before we enter the professional world, U-M students need to dissect whether our fear of failure stems from a fear that we are not productive and valuable human beings at our core. 

Students can move away from this fear by developing a greater sense of self-compassion. This may seem simple, but it is far from a magic trick. Mindfulness practices constitute a family of research-backed therapeutic approaches to tackling low self-esteem and anxiety. By practicing powerful mindfulness techniques, we can create space between ourselves and our negative thought loops, enabling us to observe and correct damaging patterns without judgment. 

Hopefully, we will fail a few times in the process.

Alexis Hancz can be reached at ahancz@umich.edu.


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