Dealing with failure can hurt, it can be emotional. It’s also a humbling experience to come up against a challenge, something that’s outside of your comfort zone. So, here are some of my tips as to how to deal with failure (particularly regarding an exam situation) in the weeks following.
As part of my 19for2019 list, I committed to studying for my CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional) qualification. It involves sitting a 3 hour exam. It’s multiple choice but with the added complexity that many of the answers could theoretically be correct, but the examiners want you to select the BEST or the MOST appropriate *cue frantic second guessing of one’s own judgement*. It’s also based on Computerised Adaptive Testing. Not sure what this is? For each subject area there are a number of levels. The candidate has to answer each question correctly to pass from one level to the next, which gets progressively more difficult, in order to make it to the top level and pass that subject area. This continues for all the subject areas. However, if the candidate gets a question wrong, it takes them back to Level 1 and they start over again. So, it keeps asking questions on the things that they get wrong, until either they a) run out of time, or b) run out of questions. Here’s a link to ISC2’s guidance on the matter.
Out of a large group of us, there were a number who failed, or who chose not to sit it. But there were lots of people who passed. I swallowed my pride, my ego, and I congratulated the braniacs that I had just spent the last week with. They deserved it. Their success did not dictate my failure.
On that train journey home I felt somewhat defeated but not to the point where my life was over. It wasn’t like GCSEs or A-Levels where they tell you that your WHOLE FUTURE DEPENDS ON THIS MOMENT (it doesn’t). Securing the CISSP wasn’t mission-critical for my job, it was a nice-to-have. But it was on my 19for2019 list, and I wasn’t going to leave an item unticked!! So, as the next week began to unfold, I took more time to process the outcome and think about next steps.
Dealing with failure can hurt, it can be emotional. It’s also a humbling experience to come up against a challenge, something that’s outside of your comfort zone. So, here are some of my tips as to how to deal with failure (particularly regarding an exam situation) in the weeks following:
1. Allow yourself a defined period of time to wallow.
For me, this was the remainder of the weekend. I gave myself Saturday evening and Sunday to wallow, to do nothing related to CISSP. I didn’t beat myself up, but I sat with the feeling of failure. I explored how I felt about not passing, how I felt about returning to study, about how I would tell people at work that I had failed. More than anything, my body and brain wanted to rest. I gave in to it.
Give yourself permission to rest, to absorb what’s just happened, and to feel a little bit sorry for yourself – it’s ok.
2. Identify what you did succeed at.
By the Monday I was beginning to think about the positives of my study to date. I thought about what I had understood clearly and rapidly, the subjects which I was comfortable and confident with. Doing this made me feel that there was less of a delta between where I was and where I needed to be. Instead of blaming the training provider, I was able to switch my inner discourse to recognise the sheer volume of stuff I had learnt and how I could best put it to use.
Write a list as things come to mind, be consciously thinking about it as you go about your day.
3. The flip side: Identify what you lacked.
This is a challenge when you don’t know for sure just how badly you did, or the specific items you got wrong, but everyone has a gut feel of the subjects they struggle to have competent understanding of. I knew which parts felt more challenging – the questions that had read like gobbledy-gook.
Aside from the technical content, I thought about what I did wrong in how I approached the exam. What time had I utilised? At what pace did I proceed through the questions? Did I read questions adequately? Did I panic? Understandably, it’s great being able to do this in hindsight, but in the moment it’s difficult to control. Still, the second time round I’d feel less shock, so how could I approach it better?
Lastly, I thought of how I prepared myself physically and mentally ahead of the exam. Did I get enough sleep? Was my brain fuelled correctly? Did I spend enough time looking at material? Or get enough distance from the material? What time of day was the exam? Did this align with my circadian rhythm?
I don’t mean this exercise to take away from the requirement of technical knowledge, but if we can give ourselves a little bit extra of a fighting chance just because we switch the exam from afternoon to morning, then why wouldn’t we take it?
Again, compile a list as these items come up for you, in order that you can address them the second time around. Do it free of judgement – this is not a blaming exercise, but more an audit, an investigation.
Having assessed the positives and the negatives of your performance, you’re in a position to consider re-engaging; with an exam this would be a resit. My advice would be to book this with minimal distance from your initial attempt. I don’t mean schedule it for the next day, but make it appropriately punchy for the amount of content you need to re-study. It’s good to apply the pressure with tight timing which provides momentum, it also ensures that you don’t forget too much of what you’ve already learned. Psychologically, it also tells your brain that there’s not long left if you knuckle down now.
5. Reach out to your network.
It can be embarrassing to admit failure or defeat but see this as an opportunity to learn from others. They passed and I didn’t so they must have been doing something right, or something differently. I wanted to find out what that was and so posted a message in our shared LinkedIn group to ask for their recommendations on study materials.
Ask your study-buddies what tools or resources they used. They’re not your competition, they’re your support network and comrades.
6. Reassess your priorities.
Now that you’ve failed at something, it may highlight that you can’t do everything at the same time. Sometimes, something’s gotta give. This definitely happened for me – I was juggling too many things and spreading myself too thin. I booked my resit for about 6 weeks after my initial attempt. This was a comfortable period of time for me to accept that other things had to be pared back or fall by the wayside. I stripped down my other commitments and projects I had on the go. This is something I found exceptionally difficult and so I worked with my coach to identify what could be sacrificed. His question, “how much do you want to pass?” was humbling enough to make me realise that the other items had to be stripped. Before I knew it, I’d given up more than I even thought was possible – how did I fit that into my usual working week?! Having now passed, I’ve picked up where I left off – surprisingly, the world did not end.
Be truthful and honest with yourself about what NEEDS to be done in this moment in time, always keeping the end goal in mind.
7. Identify the rewards.
So having reluctantly agreed to strip out most of my fulfilling projects, hobbies, interests and events, I needed some luxury to keep me going. I made a deal with myself (and my coach) that I would be able to read fiction for the entirety that I was studying for the resit. There was no pressure to read personal development material, research material, books on my 19for2019 list. Reading was to become my one joy – it was sheer luxury. I whizzed through the books, consuming them like they were food, and they satiated my brain after focussing on the dry, technical, CISSP text book.
What’s your guilty pleasure going to be?
8. Maintain boundaries.
Now that you’ve scaled back on all the unnecessary obligations and projects that you were trying to juggle, it’s important to do deep-dive analysis on what you need to achieve, and in what time frame. Allocate the time into your diary and stick to this as a commitment with yourself. Maintain the boundary and don’t let anyone fill it. Remember: how much does success mean to you?
I allocated Thursday evenings and Sundays to study, but the trade-off was that Saturdays were completely mine to spend as I pleased. I shifted appointments so they didn’t clash with my allocated days – I declined coffees and socials that were going to eat into that time. This also included saying no to the events that would have run late the night prior to study – it all has a knock-on impact.
Invest in yourself.
9. Nurture your body and brain.
It felt like I had jet lag for the week proceeding that first exam. My response was to nurture my body with the sleep and the food that it needed in order to recover. I couldn’t afford to get ill, and I was no good to myself if my face was falling into my text book.
Make sure that you’re getting the right vitamins, eating regularly, sleeping at a continuous schedule and even diarising the naps.Take a moment to consider how your body feels. How does it feel when you wake up in the morning, and when you’re going to bed? What are you eating and drinking during the day, and how does this make you feel? Perhaps this sounds ridiculous, or a bit OTT but you have to plan for your body’s needs like an athlete would – you are an athlete at this event, and you’ve got to make it to the finish line this time.
I applied all the learnings above and re-sat the exam on the 19th September, obtaining a successful result the second time round. I share this to give hope to all those who didn’t pass CISSP first time – it’s difficult. I also share this because we’re quick to publicise our wins, our achievements and successes, but more than happy to bury the failures. As per Brené Brown’s research in Daring Greatly, it takes people to be vulnerable in order to eliminate the shame and fear that comes with the risk of failure associated with daring greatly. As my boss succinctly put it on the Monday after my failure, “Claire, you only know that you pushed beyond your comfort zone when you fail at something…you met your match”.