In this video and blog, we are going to explore:

  1. What ‘fail’ means;
  2. How successful people use failures to succeed;
  3. How to shift yours and your child’s mindset from failure to success.

 After watching the video and going through this blog, you will no longer see exams as the be-all and end-all, but rather as a stepping stone for academic, professional and personal growth.

1. What does ‘fail’ mean?

One of the most pervading attachments parents and children have with regards to the amount of work completed and whether to attend school or not, relates to exam success. Exams are important. They test a person’s knowledge in a specific field. They also offer opportunities for students to apply their knowledge, so that they have the necessary skills to apply it to real-life work settings.

So, what if they fail an exam?

  • Well, it is important to examine the word fail. What does fail mean? Exploring the etymology of this word is powerful in unpacking the attached meaning we are all guilty of harbouring. 

From modern-day to past: 

  • Anglo-Norman failir“to make a mistake”
  • Old-English abreoðan“to destroy/perish”
  • Latin fallere “to trip, cause to fall”
  • Proto-Indo-European root bhal “to deceive”

What do you notice?

The meaning of ‘fail’ takes on a more drastic tone; it becomes almost life-threatening. But why? A fail is a mistake. We learn from mistakes. If an exam is failed, it can be re-taken. Employers and Universities accept retakes.

Here are the official reports from Oxford, Cambridge and a few Russell Group Universities on their stance on re-takes






So, if employers and Universities accept that ‘failing’ occurs, why is there such stigma surrounding it?

2. How successful people turn ‘failures’ into success.

Jack Ma, a self-made billionaire, who is a co-founder of Alibaba, an investor and a philanthropist, ‘failed’ Primary School twice, Middle School three times and his University Entrance Exam three times. He was also rejected by Havard ten times!

Adding to his academic failures, Jack Ma was rejected by KFC and the Police force. Can you imagine how Jack Ma felt? Did he allow these failures to stop him? No!

After failing his University Entrance Exam, he finally earned a place at Hangzhou Teachers College. After graduating, he taught English. He absolutely loved teaching and his students adored him. Why? Because Jack Ma was unafraid of failing. He had been there, done that so many times that he not only had the t-shirt, he had the jumper, trousers, socks and even the logo on his work bag!

Instead of instilling in his students the binary opposite: you fail or you succeed, he instilled his belief that: “If you don’t give up, you still have a chance. Giving up is the greatest failure.”

How refreshing is that? Can you imagine if you empowered your child with the belief that failure is not the end of your academic career. That failure is not something to be ashamed of. That failure does not mean you cannot do something. But, instead instilled in them that failure is a ‘stumble, a fall’ and that you have a choice: to keep going; or, give up.

So, how can you move your child’s mindset from failure is ‘bad’ to failure is simply a lesson?

3. How to shift yours and your child’s mindset from failure to success.

Ask your child what failure means to them. By understanding their beliefs and attitudes towards failure, you can help to shift their mind by showing them that the meanings and attachments they have towards failure is created by them. The good news is then that they can re-create what failure means.

 How can you do that?

A. Nurture patience

As Jack Ma says: “The very important thing you should have is patience.” Instil in your child patience. Encourage them to wait. For example, if you are at a restaurant (or in the current situation – at home) waiting for food and your child complains: “I’m hungry” or “I’m bored”. Do not give into them by offering a snack; or giving them something to do. Instead, remind them of what they are waiting for and how satisfying it is going to be if they wait for it.

Perhaps the best way to teach your child patience, is by modelling this behaviour. If you find yourself getting impatient, then your child will pick up on this. Try and catch yourself when you are feeling impatient so that you do not allow it to spill over in your actions or words. That way, your child can see that being patient has it rewards.

How does this translate into studying and school work? Well, perhaps your child is not grasping a concept that their friends have mastered. They begin to feel disheartened. Patience can help your child to persist as they know that they will be rewarded. Remember, patience does not mean being passive. For instance, if I am waiting for an important email, I can be impatient and continuously hit refresh on my emails and mutter under my breadth. Or, I could get on with my housework, which would be more constructive. For your child, who is struggling, rather than being impatient, they could attempt other resources to develop their understanding. Patience paves the way for persistence which will ultimately set them up for success.

Perhaps a great example of how patience and persistence can lead to growth and success is the UK medical exams. Medical and Health Care professionals are often admired for their intellect, so it might be surprising to discover that many medical students fail their exams. Research has shown that students who re-sit their exam after failing perform better and are, perhaps, better physicians for failing. This is because they have greater relatability to people having gone through a set-back of their own. It also means they have to revisit material, and so deepen their understanding of the concepts. Thus, if one of the most prestigious professions in the world accepts failures as part of learning, then why can’t we? 


[Accessed 29/06/2020]

B. Develop a game playing attitude

I was working with a 12 year old boy, who was preparing for the 13 + exam. He had told himself that he ‘failed the 11+’. He had proof that he had failed the exam by his rejection letter from the school of his choice. This had made him fearful of exams, as he felt that he may fail and then get rejected. Consequently, he would always hold himself back; rather than attempting a task, he would be cautious and tentative. Even more heart-breaking, he would constantly doubt himself and look for reassurance.

Before I could work with him on the 13 + exam, we needed to unravel the story he created about what the 11+ meant. To do this, we altered the language he used to describe it. Rather than saying, “I failed the 11+ exam”, I had him say the truth of what happened: “I was one mark off the pass mark that year.” By doing this, it helped to reduce the emotional impact. He no longer saw his experience as a catastrophic failure, but rather as a learning opportunity.

When we then approached the 13+ material, I would make it into a game. I would have him note all the words in a passage he did know. Initially he thought this was ridiculous, since I made him include words that he considered obvious such as ‘the’ and ‘I’. However, we would zoom into these words by identifying the following:

  • Do you know how to use it?
  • Have you seen it before? Where?
  • What is the denotation (Dictionary definition) of the word?
  • What is the word class?
  • Does it have any synonyms (words with similar meaning)?
  • Does it have any antonyms (words with the opposite meaning)?

In doing this, it filled him with confidence, as it reassured him that he knew more than he realised. It further primed him for success, as he was looking at ways he could apply his knowledge to things he did not know… yet!

We then looked at words in the passage he did not know. Rather than looking at it as a negative or as a way of highlighting his deficiencies in vocabulary, I framed it as an opportunity to learn something new. By tapping into curiosity and playfulness, it enabled him to see his ‘failure’ in not knowing a word, as an opportunity to discover something.

When it came to his exam, I encouraged him to enjoy the exam by reassuring him:

  • That they have given him the opportunity to sit the exam, so they clearly think he is capable;
  • That not everyone can sit the exam, so the fact that he is means it is a fantastic life experience that not everyone has;
  • That it is an opportunity to show off what he knows;
  • That he has the opportunity to learn something new.

In doing this, he felt relaxed in the exam room. When he finished the exam, he actually enjoyed it! He had never come across the passage before, which made him excited as he had the opportunity to read something new and something that he would not have chosen himself.

I am proud to say that he passed the exam! However, the pass was not the true success, the true success was the confidence he regained; the resilience he developed, and his new found love of learning. All of this, enabled him to do his best.

Tragically, due to his family’s financial situation, he was unable to attend the school that he had sat the exam for. However, the boy was not demoralised. Instead, he felt confident that he would succeed no matter his environment because he would not give up. Equally, his parents were pleased, as they could see their son had a new found zeal for learning.


Overall then, this is a great opportunity to assess yours and your child’s attitude towards failure. What stories and meanings are you attaching to ‘fail’? What stories and meanings is your child placing on ‘fail’?

We build up exams to be the be-all and end-all, but the reality is that they are not. With COVID-19, all the GCSE exams have been cancelled. GCSEs are often used to scare teenagers by telling them that their futures are determined by the outcome of their exams. Yet, due to the virus, all the exams are cancelled. Instead, their work, their mocks and their in-class participation is being used to give them a mark. Surely, this shows that exams are important, but if they are ‘failed’ (as in this case they have ‘failed’ to be sat), there are other avenues to academic, professional and personal success?

To help your child move from a failure mindset to a success mindset, nurture their patience and create a playfulness in what they do. After all, if they do not give up, then they cannot truly fail.

Specific + Singular + Supportive = Satisfaction + Success smile