Fear of Failure:Fear of Success


I have just finished grading a set of Composition I papers, and once again, B has not submitted a paper. Earlier in the semester, when he failed to turn in the second essay assignment, I insisted that we talk about it.

Missing even one 100 point essay generally means that a student fails my class, but I also build in some chances for extra credit that can save a student if he wishes to take advantage of them. I encouraged B. to do this because he is too smart to repeat Comp I. He is a good enough writer and thinker that he should move on.  B. assured me that he would do the extra credit.  I know that he has attended some of the lectures that doing the extra credit requires, but he has not turned in any of the required writing.

B. was not happy with the grade he received on his first essay, a B. My policy is that students must revise any paper with less than a 90%.  B. did not turn in a revision for this first paper. He is not used to being asked to work hard. He got through high school with very little work, and coasted on his intelligence and background knowledge to get him through.

He has now insured that he will fail Comp I.  I think I know what is going on. This is not a case of laziness, nor is it lack of preparation, nor does it have to do with ability. This is, I think, a case of a deep fear of failure. That seems counterintuitive that someone would insure that he fails because he is afraid of failure, but I have seen this phenomenon in a number of students, and friends over the years.

The logic goes like this: “I know I failed because I did not do the work, but what if I had done the work and still failed?” That logic allows someone to rationalize that he really could have done it if he had tried, but since he didn’t try, he didn’t risk a more serious kind of failure, a failure to live up to the potential that everyone has told him he has.  Doing the work actually means risking a deeper failure than the failure caused by not doing the work.

That deeper failure is a terrifying prospect. For certain students, the idea that they might not be “smart” or as smart as they have been told they are is deeply challenging. There is a line in the movie American Beauty where a lovely young teen-aged girl says “Please don’t let me be ordinary.”   This is an example of this same phenomenon. Being ordinary is not acceptable.

B. is probably one of the smartest students I have ever had. He has a restless mind and an eagerness to challenge the status quo.  He dropped out of high school because it was not challenging and, at 20, decided to come to college.  When he attends class, his comments are insightful and thoughtful. He is not afraid to challenge me. I see a young man who has engaged teachers this way all through his school years.  We all love students who talk intelligently in class, who laugh at our jokes and who actually participate in the exchange of ideas.

That part is easy for students like B., and because they are rare, we teachers enjoy them and want them to succeed.  It is so much more interesting to read a paper, even a flawed paper,  that examines an idea than it is to read one that is correct but dull and unoriginal.  But for teachers, students like B. present an extra challenge because they hide their fears with their wit and their insight. B. knows that he has failed.

He has not contacted me about an extension on this last paper, which I would have willingly given if he had asked before the due date..  We have one more week of school. I suspect that B. will disappear.  I suspect that because B. has not done well this semester, he will probably not return to school next semester.  I know that conventional schooling may not be the right venue for a student like B., but he does not have the resources, either financial or cultural, to find the school that might challenge him more than our little community college.

While B. chafes against the constrictions of Comp I, where he deliberately set out to write in a freer and less constricted way than I require of my composition students, he will need to learn that even a class where he feels constrained might have something to offer him. Although B. is obviously extremely bright, original and thoughtful, he will not succeed in school until he realizes he that he can’t avoid doing tasks where he might fail, or until he learns that failure is actually acceptable as a means to learning something else.

The B.s of this world are, in some ways, our biggest challenges as teachers because they have the most potential. It is satisfying to see an underprepared student become prepared. It is satisfying to see a student who has struggled succeed, but the B.s are tougher. They resist our efforts to help them because they do not see that they need help, they do not see how they are standing in their own way.  Their intellectual arrogance masks their deep fear that they might, in fact, be “ordinary.”

I hope I see B. before the end of the semester. If I catch a glimpse of him in the hall, I will insist that he come to my office and talk.  I will not be brazen enough to ask him what he is afraid of because I know he will not hear me yet, but I will try to talk about self-destructive behaviors.  I will not offer him a way out of this failure. I will not offer him an extension, and while I know it is not in his best interest to repeat this class, I hope I see him next semester. I am not holding my breath.


10 thoughts on “Fear of Failure:Fear of Success

  1. i think we revisit this idea through out our lives. ordinary, average – whatever the expectations, wherever they come from, I have to reevaluate or risk my sanity.

  2. Are we really just resigned to letting this kid drop out? I keep asking myself the likely scenarios of how a kid contracts such a deep fear of failure…. And if he managed to pull himself back into school, and still can’t get help, then what are we doing here? I appreciate that you’re setting boundaries and not just bailing him out, and I know you can’t save everyone, but the phrase “I hope I run into him” just really rubs me the wrong way when we’re talking about a kid’s future. Especially when you’re spent half the post talking about how bright and talented he is. It’s absolutely not for me to judge, but that was my honest response to this post.

    • What are the options? I’ve called students at home, pulled them into my office, filled out countless ‘student of concern’ forms, offered extensions, and sympathized with their struggle. What more can we do? A radical shift in expectations seems necessary – a conversation about the purpose of college also seems necessary. College needs to be a safe place to fail. In a writing classroom failure is inevitable – it’s called a draft. But too often we (instructors) are trying to evaluate and quantify a product that is not finished – every paper needs revision and the space to revise papers – not to mention, people – is expensive and elusive.

  3. I actually see or hear two topics running through this post. First, which seems to be center stage, is that of being afraid of failure if one tries. And failure in this post seems to equal “ordinary”. But the other topic which is more near and dear to me is when a student is smart and talented and never really has to work for what they can do. I found myself in this exact situation when I transfered from highschool (top of my class with minimal study time) to college where I ended up with a sub par grade point average. I spent the next 4 years of college working very hard to bring up my grade point aveage that my first year had established. Is the problem with the high schools not being challenging OR the colleges for not prepping and warning the students? Not sure of the answer but definately a question for thought!!

  4. JJH I don’t know… I’m more annoyed at B. than I am the system. He hasn’t figured out how to do what is expected of him. He didn’t do it in High School and hasn’t do it in College, which means he probably won’t do it at his job(s). And he’s not a child – he’s an adult, so I don’t think it’s the teacher’s job to play patty cake with him to get him to turn in his assignments. More than anything, he strikes me as simply arrogant. He knows he’s smart, engaging, and doesn’t want to get around to doing the coursework, and the other important but menial parts of school. He will ONLY learn this by failing again and again until he learns his lesson.

    What is jarring to me is the phrase “fear of failure.” I just don’t think it makes sense. If he was deeply insecure and troubled about being ordinary he wouldn’t be challenging the teachers and engaging them in class. I think the simpler explanation is that he doesn’t want to do the work because he doesn’t know that it’s worth the effort.

  5. JJH
    I really really hope I run into him, but he also knows well where I am. At the beginning of the semester, I had him in my office a number of times. He knows where I am, and knows what I expect. I also gave him the chance to pass even after he didn’t turn in the second paper. I am convinced that he is not lost to college, but he will come back perhaps after he’s been knocked around a bit and is a little more willing to do the work he will have to do.While it’s sad to see him disappear, I am not his babysitter. He knows where to find me.

    As for ALICE… the kids like this that I have seen before are completely willing to engage in class. They know they are bright, and charming and engaging and that has gotten them far, but what they don’t know is whether or not they will succeed at something much harder than engaging talk… I had a son who skated through 6th grade just this was. He didn’t do the required reading,but because his interesting background knowledge could fool everyone into thinking he had done the work.

  6. I’ve rewritten this comment thrice now. It’s hard to decide which direction I want to take with it. Do I go the armchair philosophy route? Perhaps it would be better if I related the topic back to myself, as I often do, to provide context for everyone.

    Or, perhaps, I should just do away with the BS.

    I can see what you’re saying, Jane. It makes a lot of sense. He chooses to fail so that he can say that he chose to fail. I think it may be more complex than that, however. It sounds like, to me, that B. negated the meaningfulness of the course material itself. Why bother learning material you feel you’ve mastered?

    As a self-fulfilling prophecy, the power of arrogance is not in the fact that one can say that they aren’t ordinary. Arrogance without foundation is narcissism. Rather, it’s in the ability to say that one deserves to be arrogant that the prophecy derives its power. Consider this – could you, as a professor, have played into this arrogance and given him just a bit more latitude than the rest of the class? If there’s one thing I know about this sort of student, it’s that they need to feel like they earned that A.

    Perhaps, in doing that, he wouldn’t have negated the material out of hand just because he got one B. I can’t say for sure (and I wouldn’t dare lecture someone of your experience). All I can say is that B. and I are very similar in temperament (‘arrogant’ as Alice diplomatically put it), and this is what helps me find meaningfulness in coursework.

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