Post-result advice and pick-me-up’s
This time of year cues the abrupt wake-up from summer vay-cay back to the realities of school. With that, comes results from the previous year.
No matter how chill the student, this can be a rough time if exams didn’t go quite in your favour. Especially when you begin hearing from people you haven’t spoken to in weeks asking how your grades went, and awkward family discussions where you pretend not to know when results are released.
First things first: It will be okay, these feelings will pass. The post-result slump can feel permanent, but we promise that’s not the case. Just like that person you dated for 2-weeks in year 9 and thought would be the one until they broke your 13 year old heart. Time heals all.
Our mental health is mad important in allowing us to improve, reflect, and push forward. It should be one of our top priorities, much more so than a grade. Grades can give you a timestamp of how much you knew at a given point of time, but the mentalities we carry influence every aspect of our lives.
So, how do we cope with this time of year? We’ll be breaking it down into some of the main things our brain does in the face of failure and how we can reframe our mindset for results, as well as the coming year.
Self-efficacy seems a very jargon-intensive term, but what it refers to is your belief in your ability to execute necessary behaviors (e.g. getting a piece of work handed in on time).
This is less concerned with how well you can write a plan, but how much you believe you could make a plan that works effectively.
Just like any skill, our self-efficacy is something we can improve (or diminish if left to simmer).
We can think of it as a bit of a spiral that perpetuates itself: A bad grade of failure gives us a bad impression of ourselves (lowering our self-belief) which makes us not want to try as much (because what’s the point, right?), which leads to more failure because we don’t try as hard.
It’s a tricky place to be in, feeling as though no matter what you do you can’t achieve what you want. All hope is not lost though! We can break this nasty downward spiral and regain a belief in our abilities.
One way of doing this is the “not yet” method. Basically, this is a reframing technique to help your brain speak to you a bit kinder. Rather than thinking “I haven’t succeeded,” it’s much better to say “I haven’t succeeded yet.” Because this gives you the option of being better in the future.
There can be deadlines for certain things, but your own educational journey and the amount of information you understand is not one of them. It is a continuous process, and just because something didn’t work out now doesn’t mean it never will.
Using something like the “not yet” strategy can break the negative self-efficacy spiral because failure is not something that demotivates, but pushes us to keep going instead.
Our own beliefs in our ability can make or break a year. Going into it with the belief that you can succeed is always going to go better for you than believing that you can’t improve from the knowledge of a high-schooler (because you can, and will).
Misattribution is another fancy term in psychological literature that basically means that we incorrectly attribute (or apply) reasons to our failures.
We blame inherent (internal, fixed) qualities and our character over strategy, or blame outside forces for what happened when it really may have been our doing.
Think of it this way: If you have a cold and it is misdiagnosed, the treatment you’re going to receive will unlikely to help the core of the issue and you’re still gonna have a cold. You never know, the treatment may even may it worse (been there, done that).
Instead, we want to really get down to the raw reasons, even if it hurts our ego. We have to be transparent with ourselves, but also readily practice self-forgiveness. What do we get out of beating ourselves up for not having studied harder about 3 months ago? Apart from sadness, not a lot. We’d get a lot more out of figuring out how to mitigate the things that we think are contributing to failure.
What is useful? Knowing your options going forward. There is always another path. Everything can be solved. Nothing is permanent. We should be honest with ourselves, but in the most constructive way possible. In this, it may also be useful to talk to someone, whether that be to help you find options going forward, or your most savage friend who will tell you what you need to hear.
Lastly, we should focus on the process more than the outcome. Every little bit counts, but when we only have a big goal in mind it can be difficult to see exactly how our small actions contribute to the overall picture.
When we only think about the endpoint, it’s harder to see the small details and actions needed to get there. It’s all well and good to say you want to get an endorsement, but what processes are needed to get there? What actions do you have to take, and when?
Thinking about the process, rather than the outcome is the way to ensure that you’re constantly working towards something. It will also help you in staying accountable on a day-to-day basis.
We’ll finish this point with a great quote Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, neurobiologist, and Holocaust survivor, from his book You Choose What Happens Next.
“Everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.“
Next on our list is cognitive distortions. Arguably one of the biggest stitch-up’s our brain can whip out, cognitive distortions are things that our brain has us convinced is true when it is not true in reality.
Common examples of cognitive distortions are:
- Catastrophizing (going to the worst-case scenario when it isn’t)
- Black and white thinking (“I either passed or failed”)
- Overgeneralization or fortune-telling (I failed once so I’ll always fail)
- Discounting the positive (failure makes you more upset than succeeding makes you happy)
Cognitive distortions can be really harmful because they can stop us before we even start, and make us feel failure much more acutely than success. The important thing to remember is that they are not true. That’s why it’s a distortion.
For example, if you overgeneralise and take one bad experience to frame everything from that point on, you’re gonna have a bad time. Failing one maths paper doesn’t mean you’ll fail every maths paper you take from there on. Especially when you’ve (probably) passed a lot more in your life than failed.
However, if you do believe this it’s super easy to disengage because you think you’re going to fail no matter what.
So, how do we tackle these? The first thing is to identify the cognitive distortion, not an easy task when they’re usually pretty ingrained and hard to spot. Think of some of your initial reactions to your results though, was there anything you just glazed over because you’d already decided you’d failed before seeing the marks?
The next thing is to rationally examine the evidence for the cognitive distortion, like you’re a judge presiding over a trial. This means to remove your personal judgements and just look at the facts.
For example, if you didn’t do as well as you’d hoped on a paper, you can ask yourself a few things:
- How did I find sitting that exam?
- Was I as prepared as I needed to be?
- Did anything special happen that day?
- Was there anything I did better in than I thought I would?
We’re quick to hone in on the negative things, but it’s likely that there’s a lot to celebrate that you may not be putting enough weight into. There are a couple of methods we can employ to help shed some kinder light on a situation. The first of which is the “advice to a friend” method.
Essentially, you assess your situation as though you’re giving advice to a friend. Would you tell your mate that they suck and should learn to resign themselves to a life of stupidity? We sure as heck hope not.
Our mental voice can be a super nasty creature sometimes, especially when self-evaluating. However, when we talk to our friends we only want to gas them up and make them feel better because they’re your friend. Additionally, we see a lot more positives in our friends than they would about themselves. Talk to yourself the same way you’d talk about your absolute best friend in the world, without sugarcoating, but without harsh judgements.
Another way to think about cognitive distortions is the “what if I’m wrong?” method. The thing about cognitive distortions is that our brain has already accepted it as fact and so we don’t consciously question how true it may be in reality.
Asking yourself “what if I’m wrong?” Is kind of like putting your distortion on trial and arguing both sides. Present the facts, draw a conclusion, but don’t let your brain feed you lies about your ability to do anything.
Cognitive distortions are tricky, they can be hard to spot, and harder to change. However, breaking them down and being more aware of the way you’re speaking to yourself is super important in ensuring you’re your biggest fan, not biggest critic.
It’s okay to feel not okay
There are very few phrases less useful than “don’t be sad.”
No one likes being sad (except that person addicted to crying???), but often it is an essential step in moving forward. If we push things down because we don’t feel like we have the time to stop and process, we’ll probably we worse off for it in the longer-term.
In aid of this sentiment, a recent study in the Journal of Behavioural Decision-Making found that emotional responses to failure are much more motivating than cognitive ones. We’ll break this down a bit more for you:
All people in the experiment were exposed to an experience of failure. Half of them were asked to consider how they felt about failing an experimental task (i.e. lousy). This half engaged in self-improving behaviour, meaning they spent more effort and time on later tasks and were more likely to improve.
The others were instructed to consider their “objective thoughts” about failing. They tended to produce “self-protective cognitions”, meaning that they tended to think up reasons why they weren’t really to blame for falling short (sounds a bit like misattribution, right?) Since they didn’t take responsibility, they did nothing to improve their performance.
What this tells us is that the medicine doesn’t just happen to be bitter. The bitterness is the medicine. It’s feeling bad about failure that motivates people to dig up the sources of their shortcomings and put in the effort to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
We benefit most from failure by harnessing the motivating power of negative emotions rather than rationalising those feelings away. As soon as we can excuse failure to something other than ourselves, we automatically fob off the blame, protect our ego, but never improve.
Failure is good
We have been taught and trained to avoid failure at all possible points in our lives. But, we didn’t know how to walk without falling, speak without stuttering, or learn without error. Ultimately, failure is impossible to avoid if you want to improve.
In their book Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland tell of a ceramics teacher who announced on the opening day of class that he was dividing the students into two groups. Half were told that they would be graded on the quantity of ceramics they produced by weight.
The other half would be graded on quality. They just had to bring along their one, pristine, perfectly designed pot.
The results were clear – the works of highest quality, the most beautiful and creative designs, were all produced by the group graded for quantity. As Bayles and Orland put it:
“It seems that while the ‘quantity’ group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the ‘quality’ group had sat theorising about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”
We underestimate the value of producing without fear of failure, to just create, write, research, or think without worrying about what kind of judgement a stranger will attach to it. It’s the best way to learn, because no matter how many times you think about what could happen, it won’t be as worthwhile as actually seeing for yourself.
We encourage you to ask yourself: what’s the hidden upside from my failure? What new insights have you gained? You may not have it perfectly cracked, but you do have a better idea of what doesn’t work.
Some round up real-talk
The real truth about life is that you are going to have a % of years in there that are like this. If life for the average person is around 80 years, statistically you’ll have some amazing years, and some years, well, will feel like this year has felt for you.
When you have years like the one you’ve had, you often feel like your whole life is closing in around you and there’s literally no hope. You’re gonna feel like it’s just not worth trying or caring anymore. It’s totally normal to feel like that – your life and your reality is like this right now.
However, the stunning and beautiful thing about life is that things are never permanent, and although this year might be terrible, life won’t be terrible forever.
When you are in this state, the key thing is to think about what you can control. You can make up those extra credits through enrolling in Te Kura summer school, for example.
You are so close to getting UE in a year that might have flattened a lot of people and ruined them. Keep going and don’t give up! You got this.
Although hardship is awful to experience, we see it as an opportunity to gain determination, empathy, and courage. It gives us an opportunity to look for hope in ourselves and others when perhaps other people wouldn’t. We’re not sure if you find that helpful or just cringe, but we challenge you to think of your situation like this.
You can’t control your hardship, but you can control what you do next.