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How to Fail from Someone Who Never Did


Three had long been my favoured number, until it glared back at me from the test sheet, embellished with red ink by my professor’s hand.

I once dreamt of discovering mathematical theorems or some sort of a constant that would be named after me. Of etching my name in research papers, contributing to the scientific world. Undoubtedly, I grew up watching too much of 3B1B and Brian Cox on YouTube and sealed my fate long before I knew what pi was. I wanted to be like them, on the other side of the screen, breaking down complicated things into comprehensible bits. As I make my way through life, I’ve ended up in decent circumstances in school and even ended up in Europe to study physics. I would give myself half a pat on the back for making it this far but I knew that what this journey had in store for me would be incomparable to my wildest imaginations.

I’ve strolled through the campus of my top choice university and encountered remarkable professors and researchers from diverse fields, many of whom I’d only previously heard about on YouTube. This newfound realm felt enigmatic, yet it beckoned for my exploration. There was an abundance of knowledge awaiting me, inviting me to delve in, with hopes I would eventually learn how to swim in it without drowning or losing my breath. How challenging could it possibly be? After all, I’ve already reached this point, ready for whatever came next.

Well, that was right before I saw a 3/20 written in red bold ink on a test sheet I’d worked so hard for. 

Alright, Stephen Hawking also faced challenges with some of his exams. Though perhaps his IQ of 160 made up for it? I’m definitely nowhere close to that. Then again, can a mere set of numbers truly define one’s intelligence? Although I’m not sure if I could assert the same sentiment to a potential employer during a job interview. It’s alright, I’ll just aim for an illogically high mark for the next test and everything will fall into place. Who would have known that I would experience all the stages of grief, and my academic debut would flop at the sight of the number 3. 

It also puts me in an awkward position here: do I, an individual who crumbles over a failed exam, have any right to share with you, dear reader who happens to actually read MASAF Pen’s articles, anything about how to fail

Understanding failure is a deeply subjective matter, shaped by individual perspectives. Personally, it is embedded in me to think that anything below 10 is a failure, an absolute pit of hell that I should never fall into if I want to survive in such a competitive environment. Setting such a standard for oneself is like a double-edged sword: it means you’re upholding yourself to the best of your best abilities but when that fails, you consciously know that you’ve crossed a line that you should not have. Now, the death bed has been made and the grave has been dug. Truthfully, I do not know how to fail or if there’s a correct way to.

Navigating failure appears simpler in theory, but a good starting point would be to dissect your initial reaction objectively. Is it merely an emotional response in the heat of the moment? Can I alter my perspective and extract value from this experience? 

Consider this: what if I approached this 3 with the same perspective as I would an 18? That is, viewing it as simply an indicator of my performance on a particular exam at a specific time of my life, and nothing beyond that. That the measure of my intelligence or my value as a student or even a human being isn’t fundamentally compromised because of a single setback. One might argue, though, about the extent to which we can uphold this concept against a system that we are built around, where every mishap could carry significant consequences in the grand scheme of things. 

However, isn’t that how everything in life is? Whether it’s achieving success, facing failure, or navigating the spaces in between, each decision and action we ultimately undertake leads us to a consequence. In essence, being human involves thinking, making decisions, and inevitably experiencing setbacks. However, failure does not mark the end; rather, it serves as a catalyst for something greater that is yet to unfold. 

I would argue that failure is a much more potent catalyst compared to success; while success signifies the attainment of predefined objectives, failure tests one’s resilience and determination to pursue those very objectives. Resilience is the art of balancing optimism with pragmatism. Embracing failure does not diminish its challenges but empowers us to confront them with fortitude.

Learning from failure, I took my exam sheet and taped it on my wall, a daily reminder of my shortcomings — a somewhat unhinged and perhaps a touch sadistic act, I now realise. However, as time went by, the hurt and anger I harboured morphed into something altogether unexpected, as if someone had abruptly cranked the cold faucet all the way to the max (or maybe it had been because my water heater had broken in the middle of winter).

Unbeknownst to me at the time, my focus sharpened in class, the weight of the calculator and pen felt lighter, and I found myself willingly abstaining from distractions that would usually consume me. I thought a 3 would make me hate this subject forever but who could have foreseen that it would yield the opposite effect on me? 

The notion of overnight success often shimmers like a distant beacon, promising a rapid ascension from obscurity to acclaim. It is deeply ingrained in our cultural narrative, beckoning an instant transformation that is far from what reality often delivers. 

Therefore, you might have anticipated the typical narrative where the protagonist triumphs over adversity through sheer determination, eventually achieving unprecedented success for the remainder of the year. But alas, that’s not my tale here. I continue to grapple with my subjects. Yet, that fateful 3 instigated a change within me: I have come to realise failure may still befall me despite my best efforts, but the power to dictate how I respond to it lies solely within my hands. 

Since that moment, I’ve found myself sitting a little more comfortably in my seat as I take my exams. The silence followed by scribbles of pencil on paper no longer fills me with dread. I take solace in knowing that I’ve done my absolute best up to that point, regardless of the outcome that follows.

So, dear reader, should you find yourself confronted by failure, remember that it is not a condemnation but a crucible for growth. Embrace it, glean wisdom from it and allow it to propel you ever closer towards your dreams.