Seeing Failure As Success: A Message For My Fellow 1st-Years

First-years, your journey is almost half done

Class of 2019, we are almost halfway through our MBA journey. We stepped into the business school colosseum five months ago ready for any challenge. Five months later, some of us are recovering after just being beaten by one of the biggest challenges of the MBA — accepting failure. 

As successful warriors of the business world (as proven by our resumes), we knew business school would be challenging. But we didn’t expect it to be defeating. Yet there have been many times the MBA has defeated us, and we have failed. Learning to accept this failure might be the biggest challenge of the MBA.

As MBAs, we’re pursuing a degree for various reasons, but one element unites us all: We want to improve ourselves. The harsh reality is that sometimes getting better means getting knocked down.

This is not a novel idea to MBA candidates. Admissions officers, faculty, staff, friends, and significant others have preached this all through the application process, during orientation, and on a weekly basis in classes. What is new to many MBA candidates is that feeling of being knocked down. When the unfamiliar emotion of failure hits, we’re not sure what to do with it. How do we handle failure? I personally forgot to write that in my notes during Q1 and Q2. 


It’s hard to absorb failure, and harder still to turn it from a negative emotion to a positive one. It’s a process that takes practice. We have to learn to look at each challenge not in such stark terms — not as success or failure, but as continued self-improvement.

Learning to approach life this way is tough. Failure can really hurt, because failing requires us to face situations that shake the core of our identities. When we fail at something that defines us, fractures form in the stability of our identity. We receive a poor mark in a concentration class, we don’t get our dream internship, our relationships atrophy because balancing school and life is a myth. All of this shakes us because we rocked at our concentration in the real world, we thought we nailed the internship interview, and we promised ourselves we’d maintain relationships outside of the MBA program. Now, in a chaotic and hectic MBA world, our foundation is shaken as we’re not succeeding at everything we once did.

But this failure doesn’t have to be negative. Failure can show growth, as long as we can look at failure as a mark of improvement — as a way we have personally or professionally developed from one day to the next. 


Of course, using failure as a growth mechanism is easier said than done. When failure hits, people kindly remind us that “everything will be OK.” But in times of failure, that can seem like a trite comment — just so many words. Failure is losing your footing, and many of us have not had her experience of walking on faulty ground as we’re trying to grow. Walking on a fissured foundation when you’re living in a state that feels like a constant game of catch-up  interrupted occasionally by moments of social comparison — is no easy task. Being around smart, dedicated, persevering peers is energizing, but it can also be paralyzing. When you’re flailing, it’s easy to find classmates who are thriving, and you wonder, “What are they doing right that I’m doing wrong?”

The answer is: There’s a high probability you’re doing nothing wrong. In fact, something is being done right: You’re in a challenging MBA program and you’re trying to better yourself. It’s hard to remember that, but it’s in these moments that we, as MBA candidates, are thankful for those who can sense our struggle and remind us that we’re getting better every day, just like our classmates. 

As MBAs, we all experience highs and lows. When we have highs, we have an obligation to look around and find a fellow classmate who is struggling and remind them that failure is good. If we’re sitting in a classroom and not challenging ourselves and pushing our limits, then we aren’t finding our true potential in business school. This potential cannot be discovered if we aren’t trying for constant improvement — which means failing. At the end of our first year, learning to redefine failure as success is possibly the most valuable lesson we will have learned. 

Brooke Cramblitt is a first-year MBA candidate at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business. Brooke worked as a marketer in the sports industry prior to attending business school and will be interning this summer with Colgate-Palmolive.  

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