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Failing in School? You can still get a Degree

by Staff Reporter


Do you feel like you’re failing in school?  Does your school work tend to take a back seat? If you’re failing a test here and forgetting homework there, don’t start identifying yourself as the person who will suck at studying. You can still end up successfully getting a degree one day. Devan knows this because he’s done it. 

“You cannot make an omelette unless you break an egg.” 


Let’s Start at the very Beginning

If I’m totally honest, I didn’t work very hard during my schooling days. I was fortunate enough to live on a golf course, and on my return home from school every day I would race off to play 9 holes. Homework took the back seat, day after day, month after month, year after year. As a result, almost every day at school I would spend my lunchtime breaks frantically copying homework from friends for the following classes. It certainly didn’t help with my results.

During my trials in my final year, I failed a number of subjects. Let me put it into perspective: if you had to take both my Maths marks during trials (Paper 1 and Paper 2), combine them, and then double that, my mark was still lower than the percentage that the top student in my grade received for Paper 1.

failing in schoolScary, right?

In terms of my other subjects, my average was well below the 50% pass mark. I thought it was the end of the world. So did my family. We were all worried. In fact, that’s an understatement, to say the least.

Somehow, I managed to push through my final exams, improve my marks somewhat, and get an opportunity at varsity. I had been accepted for a Bachelor of Arts degree in Development and Environment at Stellenbosch University. I seriously pulled a rabbit out of the hat there.

From that point on, the rest is history. I finished my degree, without any major disruptions or challenges. I went straight from my undergraduate degree into an Honours, and then finished off with a Masters in Environmental Management, finishing 2% short of cum laude. Last year I started with my doctorate, conducting about six months’ worth of research, but have since put that on hold for a few years to focus on the book I wrote in 2015 called Green is Not a Colour.

Life has treated me very well since my school days some eight years ago.

Basically, School Doesn’t Determine Success

So, what is the point of my article?  Basically, I want you to understand that your results at school do not, under any circumstances, determine whether or not your life will be a success. I ended up using my ‘failures’ to my advantage and excelling from them.


Debunking the Meaning of Failure

How would you define the word failure

Well, let me explain how I used to interpret it. During our time in school and our early development in general, we are taught to avoid failure at all cost. We learn that struggling is a bad sign, the sort of thing that you do when the work is too tough, when you cannot cope, when you’re unable to deal appropriately with things. We are told that unless we receive high marks, and succeed the first time round, then we will fail. And with that, we are sent off to tutors until we pass. In essence, we learn that failure is a sign of personal weakness – something that is littered with negativity and a sense of rejection. I used to think this way, too, and I think many people, particularly in school, still feel this way. Maybe you can relate.

However, somewhere along the line, my perception changed. Nowadays, I have a very different mindset.

I encourage myself to fail.

I embrace and welcome failure and view it as an integral part of the learning process. Failure is not negative to me anymore – it is now framed in a positive light. In fact, I try to fail at one thing every day. Why? Because that way I can allow myself to take risks. If we do not accept failure, then we will never take risks or leave our comfort zone. When these risks fail, I can then learn from them and improve for the next time. Once I accepted that failure was simply feedback on what I needed to work on next, it became easier for me to move on and find my passion, which I did.

If you’re not convinced, read this article on Why You Never Fail. It should set the record straight. 

The Lessons from School (in Retrospect)

Initially, I thought the reason I was ‘failing’ was because I wasn’t smart, and that my brain wasn’t developed enough to cope with the difficult work. In hindsight, I realise how naive I was…

Here are two things I’ve since learned about my failures in school:

Lesson 1: I lacked structure and routine

I started figuring out the root causes as to why I hadn’t been passing my subjects well at school. I discovered that I lacked any type of routine that would encourage working, for example sticking to a study plan. As I mentioned, I would come home, play golf, have a shower, watch TV, and then, if I was really in a good mood, do 30 minutes of homework. My priorities were skewed, and this was a direct result of my routine.

When I arrived at Stellenbosch University, I restructured my days into a full working day. I set a strict boundary between work and play. Work was during the day, and play was for the night. This allowed me to focus on studies for extended periods of time and be more productive.

When I worked, I worked hard; when I partied, I partied hard. But these were two different world’s, completely separate from one another.

Lesson 2: There was no passion

I realised that I had been failing subjects, like Maths, not because I wasn’t good at them or didn’t understand them (I could, if I had worked tirelessly, passed easily). Instead, I discovered that I wasn’t passionate about numbers, formulas, algorithms, and statistics. They didn’t excite me or give me a reason to wake up everyday. I learnt that the reason I ‘failed’ dismally was because the subject didn’t interest or intrigue me.

My highest mark was Geography, and I thoroughly enjoyed it more than any other subject. So, I put two and two together: interest in subject = good marks.

I’ve since been focusing on that lesson extensively. How could I go wrong doing something that I loved and enjoyed so much? Had I not ‘failed’ Maths during trials, I may well have taken a different route after school, not studied Geography as a major at university, and led a completely different life.

Every single one of us is a genius in our own way. We just need to find what we’re good at, work on it, and then become the genius within. Why would an extremely talented ballet dancer be required to pass and excel at Maths, or Science, or Biology during school, while all the while they know their life’s dream is to become a ballet dancer?

Conformity has limited many careers and dreams in the past. Failing allowed me to understand this.

Take Good Ol’ Google as an Example

If you are reading this post then you are well aware of Google, arguably the most successful and game-changing organisation in history. Google’s search engine, Gmail, and Google Maps – these are all revolutionary products that have changed the way we live our lives, run our businesses, and operate our governments.

failing in school google

Image by Doodle 4 Google finalist Cynthia Augustine

But, if you think Google has succeeded at everything it does, then think again. Have you ever heard of Google Wave, Froogle, or Google Buzz? Probably not. That’s because they were, by anyone’s standards, utter and complete disasters; total ‘failures’ that didn’t make any impression on the public.

The interesting thing, however, is that Google fully embraced these ‘failures.’

We celebrate our failures. This is a company where it is absolutely OK to try something that is very hard, have it not be successful, take the learning and apply it to something new,

says Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google.

Even if you fail at your ambitious thing, it’s very hard to fail completely. That’s the thing that people don’t get.”

If Google – the coolest company in the world (in my eyes) – thinks like this, then they must know something that many, many people don’t. And it’s not just Google. Tesla, Facebook, Apple – they have all had major ‘failures’ in the past.

Let’s Get One Thing Straight

I’d like to finish off by making one thing explicitly clear. I am by no means encouraging you to not pass school subjects. Always strive to work to the best of your ability. But – I am also saying that it’s alright if you do ‘fail.’


If you are currently in Matric and feel like I did when I was 18, then life after school may seem very bleak to you. Keep your chin up, trust me. If, for whatever reason, you ‘fail,’ then don’t view it as the end of the world; perceive it to be a part and parcel of learning. Take something valuable and positive from it and use it as a powerful weapon. People who succeed first time around don’t have this opportunity. And notice how I say opportunity.

I want to end off with some strong words by Seth Godin.

We need a lot more failures, I think. Failures that don’t kill us make us bolder, and teach us one more way that won’t work, while opening the door to things that might.

Change your mindset, and embrace these powerful words.

EduConnect 2Cents

It might sound easier said than done, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not true. Often, our parents play a big role in shaping the way we see failure, and many times we are scared to fail so we don’t disappoint anyone, including ourselves. It’s as important for our friends, parents, and other influential people to understand that failure is not necessarily a bad thing. Click here to read one mother’s concurring opinion on this matter. 


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