Exam or coursework stress is a strange concept, worlds away from other forms of stresses. Key differences include being given a defined score or grade, and loneliness; you face these challenges largely on your own without much help or accountability to others.
At school, teachers play a significant part in your success, but they can’t do your revision for you. If you go onto university, despite greater team projects in engineering, the environment still has the potential to be even lonelier as some courses and lectures include hundreds of students. The pressure we put on any academic work is therefore concentrated on us, the individual students, and I have seen first-hand the particular strain and fear of so-called failure consume the lives of students and academics, including myself, beyond control.
Health, both physical and mental, during both sixth form and university, must be a priority ahead of grades. It is easy to ramp up the pressure on yourself to achieve perfection, especially within a technical subject like engineering, often with tests featuring logic or maths and very discrete, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ mark schemes. While many groups within the wider population suffer with mental health issues, the academic mindset can incur both a fear of failure and a set of unhealthy habits which may push students of all ages into lonely headspaces.
As a result, we can obsess internally about setbacks and small differences in grades, rather than enjoying a well-rounded life and reflecting on the important lessons of any piece of work. Too often, a fear of failure causes unsustainable working habits and a general reluctance to take risks or be curious to opportunities which could be of greater benefit to our personal development.
Engineers have always relied on repeated failure to prove success. There’s the famous tale – unsure how true – that Thomas Edison and his team tested around 3,000 light bulbs until one worked in 1879. James Dyson made over 5,000 prototypes during 15 long years before he finally reached the level of vacuum cleaner he believed was a success. From every single test or prototype, they learned something, even if it just proved that a method didn’t work or continued to reinforce a developing trend or idea.
Towards the end of my second year at university, I finally recognised that I was suffering from stress and completely burned out. It came after a period of 18 months of uncertainty without a break: my dream move from my hometown to Bristol; a hectic first year of new friends, learning, and responsibilities; a much-needed 12 week summer placement, both for financial reasons as well as get ahead on the engineering career path; and culminating in a tough second year – by far my hardest academically – where I also overloaded myself with a part-time job and a start-up venture. It all hit me like a tonne of bricks in May 2017 when my dad was taken into intensive care to have a triple heart bypass.
At that point, I realised I had completely neglected my mental health in the pursuit of achieving it all. How could I help look after my dad when I was a wreck myself? Looking back at my decision making, pushing myself continually alongside my degree was constantly a competition with the expectations we all can be guilty of applying to ourselves. There was also constant dynamic of comparison against fellow students, either old friends from school or new ones at university. I felt like a failure if I couldn’t handle another challenge.
Unsurprisingly, with the timing alongside my dad’s operation and the burnout I struggled with, I failed all four of my university exams that month. I quit the start-up I had invested so much time in developing with no success.
And it was all a huge relief. I had failed, and it was the fear of failure which had previously driven me to such unhealthy habits. Due to the circumstances, the University allowed me to retake the exams in September and, three years on, I am looking forward to graduating with a good master’s degree after five years of learning and hard work. We all have a responsibility to ourselves not to prioritise academic success and other aspirations over our health and forgive ourselves when we ‘fail’.
The end of your school years will be a time when success or failure feels more defining than ever. Whether or not you get accepted or achieve the grades to get into your chosen university or post-18 pathway will either make your heart leap or sink. The stakes have never been higher. Yet, your journey is only starting and, while the outcomes will somewhat shape your future, there are many more opportunities and chances for success to come.
In the middle of all the exam or coursework stress, we can also forget some of the attributes that make us a great person, friend, and engineer beyond academic ability. Empathy, listening, organisation, curiosity, reflection, wisdom, modesty, and resilience are just a few examples of skills that can be ignored as we seek to avoid failure at all costs. My dad has since recovered well, and the very human skills that have been developed from our experiences as a family have all helped when I have worked in engineering teams since.
Part of my recovery was finally seeing a doctor and being told that the hand tremor I had for several months was as a result of not actively reducing my stress. Talking and listening to the experiences of others now helps me recognise our needs as individuals: helping a friend with a podcast about personal development, regularly speaking at University Open Days, and organising a weekly talking group on campus with a friend and a local charity called Talk Club.
We all have different motivations in our lives, and how we balance work will be affected by those. It’s important, however, regardless of your motivations, to respond well to failure, embrace any learnings you can take away, and maintain a healthy mindset as you progress towards your goals.