Failure: how to learn your lesson and succeed.


I failed an open-book exam. I got 79% while the pass rate was 80%. It’s one of those moments that are at first funny because that is such a classical story, just about not managing to pass, the frustration you can share with your peers who will then express condolences and their own frustration or condemnation of the unfairness of the exam. However, the result of the exam is binary, so failing with 79% vs 50% has the same result. But it makes me think so differently about the process. “If only just” or “that was an unfair question”. What if I passed with 80%? In that case the difference is I’m a lucky bastard, just about smart enough to gamble with my knowledge and overcome this exam system.

The end result: I did not pass. So many ways to attempt to justify what happened. Even as I write this reflection, I continuously delete sentences I write, as they are veiled justifications for what happened. I think what should have happened, is for me to have failed earlier. Before the exam happened, I should have failed a few times. That’s the way to prepare for a test of understanding.

An open-book exam may seem like an easy thing, but that doesn’t mean practice isn’t necessary. How are you going to find the information you need? Is that information actually available in the material you’re allowed to use? Is the information in a language you can understand? These are some of the things that I failed at in this exam. If I failed those questions earlier, I would have been able to prepare if they came up, well now I can do that for the next attempt.


“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

Marcus Aurelius

Failure doesn’t feel good. Success does. I’m astounded by how fast and how full a whole slew of excuses and justifications spring to mind in the case of failure. It is possibly a problem-solving method, it is how human progress is made, try and try until something works; wait for it to break then repeat the process. Success bypasses that process, it requires a conscious and forceful analysis, and an automatic acceptance that you are adequate, you know enough. While that may be true, appying the same process that failure automatically brings about could be the way to exceed your own knowledge and abilities. Take the errors, study them. Take the correct answers and look at those too, you may not be correct in your reasoning for an answer, and have stumbled upon the correct one by chance. That is progress. If progress becomes part of your routine, success and failure will become much closer to one another in how you feel and what you do.


I would be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling low after failing this exam. Despite everything I wrote above, 1%?? Really? Come on! Like really? Gah.

Ivan Written by:

Feel free to comment below, or sign up for a digest newsletter to stay up to date with more posts.

comments powered by Disqus