Nobody's perfect, right?
September 28, 2010 9:59 AM   Subscribe

How do people get over feeling discouraged after a setback?

I took my first microbiology exam of the year this morning. After studying very hard (and not having any experience with how this particular prof tests), I'm fairly sure I got a high C or low B at best. Seventy-five percent of what I thought would be on the exam wasn't. Things the professor said not to worry about were on the exam.

I told myself, "Don't worry. You'll knock it out of the park next time." But there's a big part of me that feels like this is an omen of bad things to come and I'll look back and think, "Oh, I should have quit after doing not as well on that first Microbio exam."

The feelings are probably worse because I'm one of those returning students who has a BA already and has to do very well (because I left my job to return to school full time after doing extremely well in Biology and Anatomy and Physiology ) mainly to to shorten the amount of time it would take to apply to pharmacy school. Also, I worked as an admin assistant (always chronically underemployed and I'm ready to have a real career) and my employer didn't want to accommodate my going to school anymore. So I'm living off of savings and working a job that pays minimum wage but is very flexible with my school schedule.

I realize how I can do better on the next exam. But I feel doomed, no matter what I tell myself. I can't seem to get myself to stop being afraid now that this means I'm not as good as I thought and that I won't get into pharmacy school (which sounds ridiculous).

Any tips on how to get over discouragement and how to stay positive and keep working hard even when you don't do as well as you'd have liked each and every time?
posted by anonymous to Education (18 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I know how much fun it is to worry, because it makes you feel like you're doing something, but you're really not and it's often just a waste of time. You haven't even gotten the test back yet! Wait to see the test before you freak out. The first test with a new professor is always a bit of a gamble- next time, you'll be more prepared for how things tests are structured.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:04 AM on September 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

You go out and commiserate with friends over a drink, or you go spend an afternoon out walking around taking pictures of neat things, or you buy an ice cream cake and you invite three people over to eat it with you and watch Paris Is Burning.

In your case, I recommend all three. Really, just get out of the trenches for while and give your brain a chance to accept and adjust unconsciously to your new set of expectations.
posted by hermitosis at 10:08 AM on September 28, 2010

Hopefully this doesn't come across as patronizing, but staying positive and continuing to work very hard after a minor or major setback has everything to do with the strength of your own character. Deep down, you must know that one failed exam is not the end of the road for you. Remind yourself of this, and then go on living your life with the conviction that your progress as a person is not over until you say it is.

Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and tackle the next objective.

For inspiration, this Rudyard Kipling poem always kicks my butt back into gear: If.
posted by pwally at 10:13 AM on September 28, 2010

Psychological resiliency is something that you can help build in yourself over time, and you already have good building blocks: focusing on your goals, how you'll change your approach next time, realizing you'll do better on the next exam.

Another good tool is to contemplate other times in your life where you've shown resiliency - going back to school to improve your lot is just one of them.

Lastly, Is there some physical activity you can do to exercise? Doing one more pushup or 10 minutes more cardio at the gym can help me feel more resilient, as it gives me a concrete example of how I can, and have, improved. Any other hobbies/activities/accomplishments where you can do the same sort of thing will help.

Use this experience as an opportunity to springboard yourself to greater success in this class. You know you can do it, now you just need to prove it to yourself!
posted by ldthomps at 10:14 AM on September 28, 2010

I'm in a similar position (older student, returning to undergrad level classes, making a big financial sacrifice) and I think what made a change in my thinking was realizing that what really mattered was what I got out of the class, and what I learned. I'm not taking classes in order to make a professor happy or proud of me--I'm doing it for myself, and for my future. Even though grades do matter (especially since I have a masters program to apply to in a few months!), I'd rather walk away from a class with a real understanding of the material, and an understanding of how it will help me in the future, than a 4.0. If you felt confident going into the test, and felt like you understood the material that mattered to you, then that's just as important as a high grade.
posted by Ideal Impulse at 10:19 AM on September 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am not sure if this will apply to your situation as a whole, but here's a trick that might help with the psyching yourself out over your exams:

I used to figure skate competitively, and would get that feeling you describe whenever I'd have a horrible practice or warm-up right before a competition. Total unshakeable doom.

One day, while I was falling on my ass nonstop and stressing myself out over it and wondering why I should even bother showing up for my event, my coach told me to stop worrying because that I was getting all my falls and mistakes out of the way now so that I would be able to give a flawless performance when it really mattered. And what do you know, it worked like a charm. Call it a stupid mental trick if you wish, but it continues to work for me to this day in all areas of my life.
posted by anderjen at 10:20 AM on September 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Think of the positives . . . you do know more now than before you took this exam. It also sounds as though you definitely passed.

Also, think of what you've learned from this -- for example, study all the material, including what the professor says won't be there.

And then shake it off and zero in on your next objective, which I assume is your next exam.
posted by bearwife at 10:28 AM on September 28, 2010

In school I used to get sooooo discouraged and cry and feel like my life was ruined when I did badly (not with tests so much, but with auditions.) Finally I realized it was possible to simply not get that encouraged in the first place. Once I got rid of the expectations, if I did well it was a pleasant surprise, but if I didn't, oh well, on to the next thing. I don't audition anymore because I'm in a different field, but it applies to job interviews, submitting things I write, everything really. Just stop building each little thing up as if it's so important. You know what your goal is; pursue it because it's your goal, not because you did well on one little step along the way.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 10:30 AM on September 28, 2010

Well, I think getting everyone on AskMe to share their own failure stories is a pretty good way to help get over it.

I got an F on my first Philosophy 15 test (Introduction to Logic). I thought I knew it everything already because I'd been programming for years and this was something like the third time boolean logic was being taught to me at University. So, after I failed it, I went back to my room, went OfficeSpace on some old electronics I keep around for letting off steam, rounded up some friends and we went and had some beers, played darts and generally had a good time. Then I studied my ass off for that class and finished the semester with an A.

Repeat for CS 285. And neural networks.

Though the poker player in me demands that I also propose cutting your losses. When you know you can't win, get out of the hand. If you don't think you'll meet your goals in the class, drop it and try again later. I realize this may not be feasible for financial reasons, or if it's a prereq for another class, or if it just delays your overall timeline too much. You have to do the cost-benefit analysis. Talk to your professor. As my father would say, "wheel and deal."
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:32 AM on September 28, 2010

Absolutely everybody feels discouraged sometimes, and that feeling is never permanent -- it comes and goes. Allow yourself to feel as discouraged as you do. Feel it in your body instead of thinking about how to make it go away. Pushing against it and believing that it shouldn't be there keeps it in place. Also recognize that discouragement is not incompatible with moving forward. If you are believing that you cannot study until that feeling you are labeling "discouragement" is eliminated, you will keep checking to see if it is still there before you can begin.
posted by Wordwoman at 10:47 AM on September 28, 2010

Seconding Ideal Impulse. As an adult student who's been in the working world, you're ideally placed to realize that the point of classes isn't to dance like a performing monkey for the professor's approval; it's to acquire knowledge and skills that will later assist you in succeeding at your chosen career.

Treat the test as a useful diagnostic: you didn't fail or succeed at it, you learned that your knowledge of a certain portion of the course material was deficient and will need to be expanded. Then go study the stuff you missed, and congratulate yourself on being just that much closer to ultimately becoming an awesome microbiologist.
posted by Bardolph at 11:08 AM on September 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

You know what makes a superhero? A superhero sticks with it even through seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

You are a superhero. Even with setbacks you continue doing your best. Because, you are a superhero.
posted by Sassyfras at 11:10 AM on September 28, 2010

This is your FIRST microbiology exam after being out of school for a while. You're still getting your sea legs on this!

Be pro-active on treating this as a LEARNING experience. As you take more exams, things will get better. In the meantime, if your instructor(s) are open to feedback, ask them for some. Don't approach them with an entitled "Give me higher grades, pleeeez" mentality but a "I want to know what I can do to do better next time" attitude.

Study groups can be a godsend. I had a particularly difficult class in my M.A. program and found that getting together with about five other people (who were similarly flummoxed!) helped us all do really, really well in the class at the end. Plus it was great companionship!

If you start to feel like you really need intensive help or tutoring, seek it out! Sometimes all you need is a session or two with someone who knows the material backwards and forwards for things to click.

Don't catastrophize! A "C" on one exam does not inexorably lead to OMG I am going to FLUNK OUT and I'll have to leave with my tail between my legs and OMG I'll never have the career I want and I'm going to end up living under a bridge! There are really very few things that it's impossible to bounce back from other than death, severe disabling injury (as in "brain damaged and dependent on others"), a felony record*, and bearing an unwanted child. A "C" on one exam is pretty piffling in the course of a career/work life.

* Though a felony record won't hurt your chance at a political career, it seems like! /snark
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:11 AM on September 28, 2010

CBT. Challenge your negative thinking. This could be pure projectionism, but this is what comes across when I read your post:

You failed, therefore you are a failure who will always fail.

You don't actually know you failed at all. You might have passed. Don't count your chickens before they're hatched. Also, past performance is not a guide to future performance. You know more about about what the test is going to be like, you have even more chance to study and learn more and you can better prepare for the next exam.

This is the end of any chance I might have of following this career path.

You're catastrophising. You may have failed this exam. If you did, you can retake it. It might make life a little harder for a while, but you do have the option. And if you do have to retake it, you'll be better prepared next time.

I have to be perfect at all times or I'm completely useless.

This is all-or-nothing thinking. People are below average half of the time. That's simple maths. You're never going to be perfect all time. No matter how much you laud that ideal for yourself, you're never going to achieve it. People make mistakes. Given that you are a person, allow yourself to make mistakes and then learn from them. Often, it's learning from mistakes that teach us our best lessons. But you don't even know that you failed. ;)
posted by Solomon at 11:20 AM on September 28, 2010

I'd like to share a goofy life metaphor I think about often when I fail to get something right, or make a bad choice. In math, we have this class of algorithms called markov chain monte carlo (MCMC) which lets us explore "mountains" on an N-dimensional "landscape" by taking random steps from a given starting point on the" landscape". The way the algorithm works is you take a step in a random direction along the surface, then either accept that step or reject it based on whether you've got somewhere "higher" in that landscape.

When you want to explore your "landscape", some sizes for your random steps are better than others. If you take steps that are too small, you'll probably accept them most of the time, but you won't explore much of the mountains by taking those tiny steps. Likewise, if you take steps that are too big, most of the time you'll end up somewhere that's uninteresting and you'll reject that step, so you won't learn much. So in other words, there's a certain failure rate at which you're learning as much as possible. It's been proved that this optimal rate corresponds to failure about 76% of the time.

Now the analogy I want to draw is that there are some common features between this very simple model and the way our choices in life play out. Nobody can see where their best options in life lie, so our misjudgments, uncertainties and biases turn our attempt to find a good life for ourselves into something like a random walk. And according to the math, a fairly high failure rate means you're doing something right. Failure is good! The only people who never fail are the ones who aren't learning anything!
posted by 7-7 at 11:43 AM on September 28, 2010 [8 favorites]

I just finished a post-bacc premed program so I really sympathize. My friends in the program and I were all several years out of college and had basically put all our eggs in this one med-school basket while working to support ourselves. It felt like I had so much on the line that was riding on every test performance.

You could do far worse than a C. I studied day and night for my first physics midterm, and walked into it pretty confident I was going to kill it. I got a D. I was crushed and shaken. How on earth did this happen, and how was I going to climb out of this hole? I went all out. For a semester, I became one of those crazy intense premeds I love to hate. I decided to embrace physics instead of dreading it, found a tutor (a reluctant splurge, but a good one is worth every penny), took advantage of the help room and office hours, systematically went through past years' exams and extra practice problems (if these are available to you, this is key! don't just study blindly), studied from other textbooks & sources, and periodically assessed my progress, changing things up if they weren't working for me. I even posted on AskMefi too, asking how to better understand physics conceptually. Plus as time went on, I became more familiar with what and how the professor liked to test. I took encouragement from every little improvement (and it helped that my physics tutor, who became a good friend, is an insanely positive, enthusiastic person - think double high fives). And I swear by this -- I ate fruit snacks (these gummy candies) during the tests, which helped calm me down so I wouldn't freeze up at any challenging question. I would just chew thoughtfully and mull it over. My final grade: an A.

Allow yourself to feel discouraged, but don't dwell on it. It will probably linger until you do better the next time. Let it push you. Just remember: keep your head up & don't lose perspective. This first exam is just one tiny battle, while you're in it for the long haul. You aced bio and anatomy/physio - you clearly have what it takes. If you didn't get what you wanted today, work harder for it tomorrow. Making you discouraged enough to quit is why these prereqs are there -- they weed people out. If you're really that determined to go to pharmacy school, don't give them that satisfaction :)
posted by amillionbillion at 11:50 AM on September 28, 2010

It sounds like you haven't even gotten your grade back yet. It's very likely that the curve will be kind to you if there was that much material on there that the professor said not to worry about. Chill.

Mrs. Advicepig went back for a few years of post bac and she's started med school this year. You don't need to ace every test. We know tons of nontraditional students, and few of them had perfect post bac grades. Life experience counts for a lot here.
posted by advicepig at 12:43 PM on September 28, 2010

I read this...and thought....maybe it's not you. Really. This was very telling to me: "Things the professor said not to worry about were on the exam."

I was a very non-traditional student. Rule #1 - hack the system. Some teachers you'll learn/get along great with....some you won't. Make friends/ask everyone what teachers they liked/hated. Keep those notes. When you go to register (or the post the classes) find out who is teaching. There are some teachers you MUST JUST AVOID. Even on 'gut' classes. After two/three terms, you'll know every teacher in the department.

This is fear talking: "Oh, I should have quit after doing not as well on that first Microbio exam."

You managed to get a degree already. You managed to be brave when an employer (in a down economy) wasn't accommodating. And you managed to create savings to push yourself further on. It shouldn't be a test of how much shit you should put up with.

It sounds like between the job and the classwork that you're just tired. If Saturday rolls in and you have the ability to 'sleep in' - and you could spend past 10am in bed? Yeah, you're burning it on both ends.

Sleep and taking care of yourself are probably the most crucial things to both learning and keeping your own personal flag flying.

You know the truth! "I can't seem to get myself to stop being afraid now that this means I'm not as good as I thought and that I won't get into pharmacy school (which sounds ridiculous)." It is ridiculous!

If you're really REALLY struggling on a 'gut class' - rule #2 - Go find the tutoring center. If you need extra time, drop the class (grade wise) and still show up for classes. First time through can be a 'practice.' Some subjects we need better foundations and more time. I used to get together with a 'study group' once a week for most of my classes - someone of the opposite sex that I found attractive (so I'd show up!), someone who I thought was smarter (so I could learn) and someone who really dug the materials, if possible.

Rule #3- a gut class you need to pass, that you can't find a good teacher....see if you can take it during night school/community college (and make the the credits transfer first!). Non traditional classes often are easier to get decent grades.

And rule #4; find a cheerleader. A friend, coworker, family members...someone who will let you know that you're talking yourself down.
posted by filmgeek at 7:56 PM on September 29, 2010

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