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What I've Learned About Failure in Graduate School With Mental Illness


One of my favorite professors has a unique requirement as part of his grading scheme that I’ve adapted to my life. Over the course of the semester, students present to the class a mistake they made and demonstrate what they learned from it. On the syllabus it’s called a productive failure. This one act is worth 5 percent of their grade, which seems small but can make the difference between passing and failing.

I was lucky enough to be a teaching assistant for this professor last semester. This meant I was able to see dozens of students share their productive failures. More than that, I was able to see what learning could look like in a classroom where failure was such a welcome part of the learning process. As the end of the class drew nearer, I began to wonder what it would look like if I could learn to see the productive side of failure in my own life

I’ve dealt with mental illness most of my life. One piece of that looks like my brain telling me I’m a failure quite frequently. It is highly skilled in taking one bad grade and snowballing it until I believe I’ll never reach any of my educational goals. Trying to fight this inner monologue for most of the semester took its toll. I spent the last few months considering not even returning in the spring. Then, I decided I should get my Master’s and not continue to get a Ph.D. But all those decisions are beside the point. Whether I master out or keep going, I want to make the most of this opportunity of being in graduate school. And I think to do so means learning more than mathematics. Specifically, I want to train my mind to see how perceived failures could actually lead to productivity.

So far I’ve learned two things as I’ve tried to change how I feel about failure. First of all, it’s extremely freaking difficult. Secondly, you can’t do it alone. I’ve spent most of my life listening to my brain tell me I’m hopeless, so it’s not something that will change in a day. Slowly though, I’m starting to have moments where I’m  able to resist its persistent pessimism. Resisting looks like a number of things. Often it’s changing the way I say things. Instead of “I can’t do this” or “I don’t understand,” I try to make a conscious effort to say, “I can’t do this, yet.” and “I don’t understand this, yet.” That one three-letter word really does make a difference.

As for doing it alone, I’ve reluctantly acknowledged my need for community. I don’t really want everyone to know I see myself as a huge failure because what if they agree? Maybe everyone else also thinks I’m a big screw up. But then people tell me how they’ve been encouraged after hearing how I’ve survived hardship. They show me how I’ve grown and changed through seasons of hopelessness. They help me find the productive in each failure I present to them. Vulnerability has power in this way. I’ve experienced so much more than just freedom when I’ve opened up about how I’ve struggled but found support and people to lean on when I feel caught in my brain’s traps.

As I wrap things up, I can’t tell you whether or not I decided to quit after next semester, after I get my Master’s, or keep going to attempt a Ph.D. I can tell you I’m going to fight harder to not let depression, self-hatred, and anxiety be what stops me. Because sometimes I see having mental illness my biggest failure of all. Unfortunately, I’m not immune to the terrible effects of the stigma surrounding it. Instead of allowing myself some grace as someone who struggles with lack of motivation or an inability to concentrate, I label myself as lazy and a procrastinator. The truth often is my depression or anxiety is demanding a fight that day. Graduate school is tough, and having a mental illness makes it a whole lot tougher.

If you also get trapped in the mindset of failure, whether it’s part of a mental illness or not, I want you to know you’re not alone. And I want you to know things don’t always have to be this way. The last few weeks of the semester I saw my students embrace how messy math could be. They didn’t stop when they were wrong but learned from it and persevered. I’m hoping the same can happen in my life and in yours. Life will always be messy, and we will probably keep failing, but we can survive it. We will survive it better and stronger than before.

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Thinkstock photo by shironosov