Saturday, May 28, 2011

Fear of Failure Can Kill Your Goals

Yesterday, Daughter took her college placement exam in Math.  At the risk of embarrassing her, and having her pretty much hate me, I'm telling you about her results.  She bombed. 

She went into the test shaking with nerves and ready to barf.  Midway through, she told me she was going to fail.  When she finished an hour early, I made her go back and look through the questions again, but it didn't do any good.  As soon as she submitted the online test, she got her results back and she placed in the lowest possible course for college - basically remedial math. When my husband arrived home from work, she was sitting at my desk with her head on her arms trying not to cry. 

He blames himself for not having the time to work with her on math this year.  (The man works like 60 hours a week to keep us fed and housed and clothed, so, yeah, he doesn't have the time and I don't blame him.)  Of course, I blame myself for not knowing higher level math at all and leaving her to muddle through on her own.  And she blames herself for not working hard enough.

About an hour after she got the results, she came back to my computer and started in on the tutorials CSU provides for just such an occasion*.  Within minutes, she had herself upset again.  She couldn't remember even the basic things she knows she knows.  I sat down next to her and tried to get her to stop.  Put it all away for the rest of the day and let herself get out of the place she had herself in.  While it's always good to work through a problem rather than wallow in it, sometimes it's better to put a little space between yourself and the problem.

Nope.  She was determined to figure this out.  After all the work she's put in, failure was inconceivable.  Okay.  Fine.  She was determined to do this and do it right then, so I kicked her out of my chair.  I sat down and pulled up the first tutorial question she was having problems with.  I made her walk through the steps she was using in order for me to figure out why she wasn't getting the right answer. 

The answer?  It was as I suspected.  She had herself in such a snit, she was working the problem from the wrong direction - multiplying everything instead of dividing everything.  And as I talked her through the problem, she realized she did know the right way, after all.  The error, as I had suspected, was that her brain was so focused on FAILING that it was screwing itself into the dirt.  And she realized that several of the problems on the placement test had suffered a similar fate. 

This was the point where I reminded her what happened the first time she took the ACT pre-test.  She fell into the same trap.  Worry and angst sabotaged what should have been, if not easy, at least not so damn hard.

Sure, worry wasn't the whole problem.  She legitimately wasn't as knowledgeable about logarithms as she should have been.  And her trig skills could be better.  Neither of us expected her to place out of those classes.  But to place below College Algebra??  She should've kicked Algebra's ass, but instead of stepping up to the fight, her brain turned tail and ran. 

Now, I was going somewhere with this.  (You didn't seriously think I'd risk traumatizing the kid if I didn't have a point to make, do you?)  And it's a point I've made before - as well as one I've fallen prey to...

Fear of failure can be as fatal to your goals as the failure itself.

Like Daughter knows she knows hows to convert meters per second to miles per minute, I know I know how to write a good story.  But sometimes fear of failing - of creating yet another manuscript no one wants - makes me forget how to do what I do.  I get so worried about making the story the way I think other people will want it that I forget that I know how to do this.  Hell, sometimes it makes me second guess myself so bad I don't know where the f*** to put a comma.

And as I was thinking through this, I realized I've been in the same place as my daughter was yesterday - since the start of the year.  Except for me, fear of failure has kept me from even trying to take the test, so to speak.  In fact, maybe it's been my problem since 2004.  Maybe I never really got over the fear of failure born from that first round of rejections for my virgin manuscript. 

Anyway, it's something we're both going to have to work through to get where we want to go - me to publication and Daughter into College Algebra.  She's already started working through it and I'm so proud of her for getting back on the horse that pretty much kicked her in the teeth.  Now I just need to sort through my own problems and figure out which ones to tackle first. 

Keep your fingers crossed. 

* Daughter has two more chances to take the Math Placement Exam to improve her score, plus she has another test she can take to get her at least past remedial math.  The tutorials are to help with the latter, but they can't hurt with the MPE either.


  1. I admire your daughter's tenacity, and I hope and pray things go her way next time.

    I know what you mean about fear of failure. I absolutely obsess over that, and it doesn't do me a bit of good. But does that stop me? Nope. It's a constant battle.

  2. I HATE math. I get fractions, basic arithmetic and all that. The rest is hieroglyphics to me. I've tried and tried. I made it through college algebra and math for teachers courses, but just barely.