Failure is an option
I took my driving test this week. Having taken lessons over the summer, and felt as if progress was being made, and my wonderful driving instructor being happy, we got the test booked in, and organised, a few weeks before, a mock exam. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said as we did so. ‘Everyone fails the mock. That’s why we do it – so we can then fix the things that make you panic under test conditions in the lessons we’ve got left.’
I duly made a complete hash of the mock, failed about five times over, and then still had time to sort out the mistakes, as she had correctly predicted. It was interesting to me, in fact, how nervous I actually found myself in the mock given the regularity with which I am in performance/presentation situations for work. But then, I have rather more experience of talking about Brahms to concert audiences than I do reversing around a corner.
The mock left me philosophical in just the same way as I had been in the lead-up to taking the theory test over the summer, though for different reasons. The theory test, I imagined, was failable because of the knack of clicking away on cue at hazards leaping out in front of the videos they played. An amount of pre-test practice meant that I was fine, in the end, with clicking when I was ‘supposed’ to click to get the necessary score. The practical test, I now realised, was failable because of both nerves – a silly slip, a thing forgotten – and also it could be scuppered by the driving of others. No one cuts you up in a music exam; on the road, you might not be quite so lucky.
As a result of this, I found myself thinking a lot about failure. That probably sounds very negative. But I felt, weirdly, that a driving test – unlike a GCSE, an A-level, a university degree – is something that socially, we are ok with people failing. And in all the earlier stages of my education, this had never really been something that had even been acknowledged, let alone ‘allowed’.
The simple truth of the matter is that failure is a part of life. In most situations it’s not about tests: we might fail to arrive at an appointment on time; fail to save as much money as we’d hoped within a given period; fail to remember a friend’s birthday; fail to meet the requirements of a job we apply for. To accept that this might happen is to accept fallibility – our own fallibility – as opposed to always blaming it on someone else (and I’m sure we can all think of people who will tell us that it’s never their fault, in addition to all those spectacular litigations that leave us reeling at people complaining that no one told them the tea might be hot, the rain might make the ground slippery, and so on). It’s important to understand that we all fail sometimes, even though most of us hope that it might be at relatively minor activities.
But failure in a formal test within education is a different kettle of fish. Failure in a school test leads to censure; failure in exams, from SATS onwards, can ‘ruin our future’. Yes, that’s the kind of language twelve and thirteen-year-olds absorb. Screw up that Biology GCSE and you’ve ruined everything, forever. Not got a string of As? Then you’ll end up at the Wrong University and it will be terrible and your job prospects will be irreparably harmed. On track for a degree classification lower than a first? No one will employ you. And yes, I also had the delight of a conversation with a senior university figure once upon a time who told me that if I didn’t go to Oxbridge for my PhD, I basically wouldn’t be taken seriously and was much less likely to be academically employable.
Motivating students of all ages to do their best is, of course, extremely important. But scaremongering from teachers, lecturers and the press can be profoundly damaging and I’ve little doubt that the enormous raise in anxiety levels and mental illness in young people is due in part to the pressure they feel they’re under to jump through every hoop perfectly, lest they fall into the abyss of worthless, jobless idiocy that seems to ready to claim them. There is a balance to be struck here, and one that the students themselves, as well as the teachers, should be encouraged to think about and discuss.
As for me? Since I am routinely told that I’m all confidence and capability and of course I’ll be fine, and all that stuff, I’ll let you in on a secret. Every GCSE I did, every A-level, every marking batch from my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, I was scared about. Every time I thought I’d have failed – except for me, ‘fail’ meant ‘not get the high marks that everyone else seems to be expecting me to get’. I was very lucky to have this balanced by some words of extreme wisdom from friends and mentors along the way, my favourite being a teacher who told me, in my Upper Sixth year as I was panicking about A-level results, ‘You’ll get the marks you’ll get, you’ll go to university and frankly, it doesn’t matter which one, because provided you’re prepared to make the most of it you’ll have a good time there and learn a lot.’
I passed the driving test. I was so surprised – and had so persuaded myself that I would fail, had allowed myself the possibility, really for the first time ever, that this might be a test that I really would mess up – that I spent the rest of the day in a kind of daze. But this honest consideration of failure can lead to something very important indeed: sometimes, it’s worth giving something your best shot even if it turns out you’ll fail. Because that way, you’ll know the answer to the nagging question, ‘what if?’. And who knows? Maybe you’ll succeed, after all.