Did you know that there is a failure rate of between 30% and 45% in the nine medical colleges throughout Australia and New Zealand?   So if you are a doctor and have failed this exam once, twice, or more, then join the club, you are not alone.  But it’s not only doctors – everybody wants to do well, whether you want to be a good parent, get good marks in university or high school exams, interview successfully for a job, give a wedding speech,  get up on stage and give a talk. We all have that fear of failure.  But how you handle an actual failure or fear of failure is critically important for your future success.


It is worth quoting some of a now-famous graduation speech given in 2008 at Harvard University by J.K. Rowling, the super successful author of the Harry Potter books, on the subject of failure.


I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew. Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea there was going to be what the press has since represented as a fairytale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended….so why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me….I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive. [Failure] gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations….Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.


Our minds are hard to change once we become convinced of something. So it might be very natural to feel demoralized and defeated after you fail, but you cannot allow yourself to become convinced that you can’t succeed. You have to fight feelings of helplessness. You have to gain control of the situation, and you have to break this kind of negative cycle before it begins. Our minds and our feelings are not the trustworthy friends we thought they were, they can be totally supportive one minute and really unpleasant the next.


Rejection because of failure can be extremely painful.  We all start thinking of our failings and our shortcomings, we feel like losers. Our self-esteem is already hurting, so why do we all have the urge to think this way?  Often it is because we’re overthinking and don’t seem to be able to stop. This is known as rumination and it easily becomes a habit, so that you end up worrying about all sorts of things. It can be a difficult habit to stop, particularly when you chew over something that perhaps made you feel humiliated and embarrassed, such as fear of failure.


However, studies show that a two-minute distraction can be enough to break the urge to ruminate in that moment. So each time you have a worrying, negative or distressing thought you can change your thinking, by forcing yourself to not only focus your mind elsewhere, but also physically “do” something, until the urge to ruminate passes. It is quite likely, if you do this each time, your rumination will lessen within a week.  It doesn’t take long to change patterns of negative thinking and become more hopeful and positive in your outlook. By taking action when you are lonely, by changing the way you react to failure, and stopping recurring negative thoughts, you are practising and building emotional resilience.


I often get told, by doctors studying for major exams, that they are so overwhelmed by the amount of material they have to read, that they actually feel stuck, and so paralysed that they stop studying for the rest of that day.  This can happen to anybody, not just the doctors I see. It can be tough for a variety of reasons – not enough family or institutional support, having a young baby, being harassed by other more senior people, English not being a first language, feeling lonely, or perhaps depressed, not obtaining enough guidance as to how to prepare. Overall, there is a sense of powerlessness to change. Here are some thoughts to remember when things are tough and not going well:


1. Even the tiniest possible step is progress.

Just 15 minutes of reading exam material or doing other preparation is a small but positive step.

2. You don’t have to have it all figured out to move forward.

Sometimes looking at all the material that has to be learned can be overwhelming.  Just methodically eat away at it, and keep doing a little at a time.

3. Nothing changes if nothing changes.

After any failure do something different when you sitting the same exam again.  It’s usually a mistake to do more of the same. It is boring and you lose motivation.

4. Feeling stuck is a sign that it’s time to make a change.

Have you had a couple of failures, and don’t know what to do to enhance your chances of success? Get a fresh perspective from elsewhere, perhaps a mentor or a performance psychologist.

5. Believe what your heart tells you, not what others say.

People can be hurtful, often just because they are thoughtless, and don’t  know the circumstances.

6. It’s a learning experience.

There is always something to be learnt from failure. Make sure you reflect on the experience and always take some useful lessons away from it. Failure can provide the opportunity to know more about yourself.

7. Not getting what you want can be a blessing.

There is a percentage of luck with being successful the first time.  People who succeed in examinations might have just read up on certain questions the week before, or had had few distractions and a pretty good lead-up with time off for study. Often a failure or two can end up making you a much wiser person,   more humble, tolerant, and resilient, and better at your job.

8. Allow yourself to have some fun.

On your days off, study in the morning, but get out and do something for yourself in the afternoon,  feeling no guilt because you’re not sitting at your desk.  Even a different way of studying and testing can be fun, and may take less time than your usual mode of studying for exams.

9. Being kind to yourself is the best medicine.

Often we are our own worst critics, and we can sabotage ourselves with our negative self-talk. Treat yourself with compassion after a failure.  Be kind to yourself in the same way you would be if it was your best friend or your child who had failed.

10. Other people’s negativity isn’t worth worrying about.

It hurts a lot when that negativity comes from people you admire. They’ve probably forgotten how hard it was for them to pass exams. Keep in mind that many successful people in all walks of live have failed over and over again. You have lots of strengths as a person. Remind yourself of these strengths when times are tough.


In the face of failure, it is human nature to feel disappointment. We feel defeated, exhausted, and it is as though we have not achieved that goal that we set out to do. And when it happens it is important to know how to manage the feelings that follow. Failure is a huge part of success. A famous quote from basketball star Michael Jordan, is “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”


Dr. Patsy Tremayne