Where does students’ fear of failure come from?

Through my work as an education excellence coach and speaker, I've had the privilege of interacting with thousands of students.

Students often tell me that the words "test" and "exam" strike terror in their hearts. They say things like:

  • "I can't afford to mess up this test!"

  • "I'll cry if I fail this exam."

  • "I'll be crushed if I don't get an 'A'."

It's necessary to evaluate how much students have learned over the course of a semester, but surely tests and exams shouldn't elicit so many feelings of anxiety and dread?

Education today isn't characterized by a sense of discovery and exploration. Neither is it characterized by a spirit of curiosity.

Why education is scary

Instead, it's characterized by fear.

Fear of losing out. Fear of exams. Fear of disappointment. Fear of failure.

I used to think that I understood exactly where these fears came from.

We live in a competitive environment with a challenging job market. Parents have high expectations of their children. Our society places a heavy emphasis on performance and achievement.

That's the full explanation, I thought.

But I was missing a crucial piece of the puzzle: Teachers.

"The fear of failure begins in the teacher"

Please don't get me wrong; I greatly admire the work that teachers do. My friends who are teachers are some of the most patient, kind and diligent people I know.

Personally, I don't have what it takes to do a teacher's job.

To all of you teachers out there who are reading this: Keep up the excellent work!

A few months ago, I wrote an article, in which I observed that many successful people have succeeded in spite of school, not because of it.

In response to my article, a good friend of mine, who's a teacher, wrote:

"… the fear of failure begins in the teacher. That's the root of the issue in our education system. One of the indicators to measure a teacher's performance is the student's grades.

More often than not, the teacher is blinded to the student's fear of failure because it is more daunting to come to terms with the fact that the fear stems from us [teachers].

When we deny our own condition, we fail to see what is happening in the student because it reminds us of who … we really are."

Powerfully written.

Teaching is an extremely noble calling, but teachers do have a part to play in causing students to fear failure.

No university degree = meaningless life?

I recently spoke to a teacher (I'll call him Michael) who spent many years teaching at a school where the students were not very academically inclined.

In relating his experience to me, Michael remarked, "Most of my students never made it to university. Their lives will never amount to much."

Their lives will never amount to much.

It troubled me deeply that those words came out of Michael's mouth so smoothly, so effortlessly, so naturally.

It was as if the gospel truth is that if you don't have a university degree, then your life will—without a doubt—"never amount to much".

I don't believe that to be the case at all.

Each of us is running a race, but the goal shouldn't be to finish first. Rather, the goal should be to finish well, to lead a meaningful life that you can be proud of and to make a difference in the lives of others.

I wonder how many teachers share Michael's sentiment?

I'm concerned that the teachers who do might just give up on their students who don't demonstrate an aptitude for academic subjects, even though these same students might be gifted in other areas like sport, music or dance.

Fish trying to climb a tree

Teachers who believe that education is primarily about certificates, diplomas and degrees are likely to instill in their students a fear of tests and exams.

Eventually, their students will fear learning, because learning has become synonymous with those terrifying exams.

It's Albert Einstein who wisely observed: "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."

All of us are worth so much more than the educational qualifications that we write down on our CV.

The three stages in overcoming the fear of failure

If we want to help students overcome the fear of failure, we need to first recognize that there are three stages in the journey: Approval, Acceptance and Adventure.

Whether you're a parent, teacher, sibling or friend, you have a role to play in encouraging students to make it through the three stages.

Many students remain stuck at the Approval stage for their entire academic careers, so we should all support them as they seek to find real happiness and success in their student lives.

Here's a description of each stage.

Stage 1: Approval

At this stage, students seek the approval of their parents and teachers. They want to do well in school to make other people happy. They're afraid of doing poorly because of the displeasure their parents and teachers will express.

Stage 2: Acceptance

Stage 2 is where students begin to accept themselves fully—their strengths, talents, shortcomings and inadequacies. They become more purpose-driven in their pursuits, and aren't so fixated on their performance.

Stage 3: Adventure

When students begin to see education as an adventure of discovery, they become intrinsically motivated. They work hard to be the best they can be, instead of trying to be better than their peers. At Stage 3, students see failure not as something to be feared, but rather as something to be embraced. They understand that failure is an integral part of the success journey.

In closing…

The fear of failure is something we all grapple with. It's a battle that begins at childhood, and it's one that will last a lifetime.

That doesn't mean, however, that we shouldn't equip our students with the skills and mindset to fight a winning battle.

Every one of us—not just teachers—can do our part to help students feel the fear but face it bravely anyway.

Whenever we talk about education, let's not forget that students' well-being is at stake. Lives are at stake. The future of our country is at stake.

So let's get to work.

Daniel Wong is a learning and personal development expert, as well as a certified youth counselor. A sought-after speaker and coach, he is also the best-selling author of "The Happy Student: 5 Steps to Academic Fulfillment and Success". He offers programmes to help students attain exam excellence while also finding happiness and fulfillment, and to empower parents to motivate their unmotivated teenagers. He writes regularly at www.daniel-wong.com. Download his FREE e-books, "The Unhappiness Manifesto: Do You Make These 150 Mistakes In The Pursuit Of Happiness?" and "Singapore Scholarship Guide: The $500,000 Decision". The views expressed are his own.