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Nova Schauss and Kerry Thomas, Oregon State University

Editor’s Note: Nova Schauss and Kerry Thomas were awarded “Best in Region” at the 2014 Region 8 Conference for “Advising Students on Developing Resiliency,” which they then presented to rave reviews at the 2014 NACADA Annual Conference in Minneapolis.  Watch for Nova and Kerry in the NACADA Web Event venue in Fall 2015!

Nova Schauss and Kerry Thomas.jpgWhy is it so important to foster resiliency in ourselves, our colleagues, and our students?  It’s critical that we have the skills to learn from our failures, because to fail is an inevitable part of the human existence.   In order to thrive and to become our best selves, we must learn how to engage with failure in a healthy and constructive way.

Our work with students in negative academic standing led us to realize the importance of teaching resiliency to this population and was the inspiration for our presentation to the NACADA community.  In the first version of our presentation, we had a slide with ‘Failed’ stamped in red across the slide.  We wanted to discuss the common failures students experience as a way to provide context for why resiliency building is so important.  As we gave this talk, we received the overwhelming feedback that calling it failure is just too harsh.  So, as advisors, we put a positive spin on it.  We retitled the slide ‘challenges ahead,’ and went on giving the presentation several times over this past year.

I Failed . . .

It’s what we as advisors do, right? We re-frame bad experiences in order to make them seem more manageable.  We tell our students that they’ll look back on this moment one day and laugh, because it really isn’t that big of a deal.  We do all kinds of things to make the negative feelings of failure seem smaller, easier to deal with.  As we have given this presentation, reflecting a great deal in the process, we now realize just how important it is to name our failure, to be in it, and to fully engage in it.

Even when we re-frame our student’s experiences, and build them a tidy little plan that helps them connect with university resources, they still leave our offices with a 0.0 GPA, or kicked out of their residence due to grades, or facing future suspension from the university, or whatever it may be.  Those feelings are real, and they are nasty, and we owe it to our students to validate the experience and to help them learn the skills needed to embrace their failure and then move through it.  If they can’t be resilient in the face of failure, they will never make it to our ‘prescription for success.’  They will be stuck in these negative feelings with no way to get out.

We’ve all had this done to us.  We’ve had a friend, advisor, or family member observe our failure and go straight into fix-it mode.  In the midst of significant hurt or struggle, what we need is space to be in that moment with someone we trust.  We crave authentic connection.  Belittling an experience by calling it a stumbling block and providing a quick and easy plan to get back on the right track does not honor the experience; it does not create a space for honest connection.  Rather, it leaves us feeling unheard.

Fear of Failure

We are so failure-averse that our fear of failing often causes more pain than what the actual failure has the possibility to inflict.  Read that again; let it sink in.

We live in such a risk-averse society that we give out participation trophies so that kids don’t have to experience anything that could make them feel that they are less than a winner.  We are in constant fear of being rejected, being wrong, making a fool of ourselves, in essence being found wanting.  And that fear has the ability to silence us and stop us in our tracks.  If we are so terrified of taking a risk because there’s a chance of failure, then we never get to experience the high when a huge risk pays off.  Fear of failure has the unique ability, beyond any other fear, to steal our potential.

Brené Brown (2012) talks about how amazingly terrifying it is to be human.  As a coping mechanism, we often criticize ourselves, judge others, and stay in safe but limiting ways of being in order to avoid living what she calls a ‘full life.’ Her recommendation is to give one another a break.  When in doubt, be kind rather than judgmental.  Be open to the possibilities that the world is offering.

The ability to be resilient allows us to see failure for what it is: an opportunity to learn, to grow, to re-build until we are better than we were before.  If we see failure as a natural part of life, we recognize it as the secret to success, rather than something to be afraid of.

Resiliency in the Face of Failure

The way in which we view failure has a direct impact on our willingness to take risks and explore uncertain territory.  The notion that failure is an inherently bad thing and indicative of one’s intelligence or skill typically leads to a reduction in risk taking.  Carol Dweck (2008) refers to this mentality as a fixed mindset, and it runs rampant among students.  Students with a fixed mindset often use absolutes to describe their intelligence or abilities: “I’ve never been good at math . . . I will never have any musical talent . . . It’s impossible for me to do well in athletics.” For those with a fixed mindset, all experiences with failure reinforce the notion that skills and abilities are fixed, static, and pre-determined.  If trying something new has the potential to backfire, the tendency is to avoid the unknown and stick with the familiar.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the idea that our skills, knowledge, and abilities have unlimited potential given enough effort.  Moments of failure are therefore helpful feedback mechanisms and serve as opportunities to refine our approach with the intention of a better outcome next time around.  This mentality is in stark contrast to fixed mindset and was coined growth mindset by Dweck (2008).  When we interact with the world from the lens of a growth mindset, failure is no longer an experience to be feared.  Rather, failure moves us toward goal attainment through the process of self-reflection.  In the simplest of terms, growth mindset suggests that who we are today is not necessarily who we have the potential to become tomorrow.

The good news is that mindset is malleable.  Moving from a fixed to growth mindset can occur with minimal intervention, such as praising a student for their effort rather than praising intelligence.  For example, when a student sees improvement in their grades from the previous term, ask them what strategies they employed and congratulate them on their hard work.  The majority of our students have been conditioned to celebrate natural talent rather than hard work.  The problem is that if a student “wins because they are a winner, then when they lose, they must be a loser” (Briceno, 2012).

Imagine what your student population would look like if they all believed they had the ability to achieve their dreams given enough energy and persistence.  As advisors, we have the unique position in the university environment to have great impact on each student that we interact with, and we can slowly and intentionally move our students toward resiliency.  When advisors uplift and instill a growth mindset in students, we are essentially developing students who are brave in their vulnerability and see unlimited potential in themselves.

Get Your Shovel Out, We’re Going Deep

We now pose these questions to you, the Academic Advising community: What are you afraid of?  What are you avoiding?  What holds you back because of fear?  Hold onto that image, and now imagine what our students confront daily: moments of profound transition, tremendous academic joys and challenges, and planning for an uncertain future.  Acknowledging our own struggles makes us more present and empathic advisors when students disclose their own moments of failure.  We challenge both ourselves and the greater advising community to carry that thought into those still small moments when students trust us enough to say, “I failed.”

Nova Schauss
Student Success Coordinator
College of Engineering, Student Services Office
Oregon State University
[email protected]

Kerry Thomas
International Degree- Academic Advisor
Oregon State University
[email protected]


Briceno, E. (2012, November 18). The power of belief - mindset and success. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN34FNbOKXc

Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books.

Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.


Cite this article using APA style as: Schauss, N. & Thomas, K. (2015, June). The ‘f’ word: Why teaching resiliency is critical. Academic Advising Today, 38(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


Posted in: 2015 June 38:2


# Rich
Wednesday, June 10, 2015 11:02 AM
Thank you for an important and much needed perspective on working with students. I would add, however, one friendly amendment:

the unexamined adoption of the "malleable mindset" can lead to unintended consequences, namely the inability to "know when to fold 'em" (Kenny Rogers; Miller & Wrosch). Put another way, we need to re-learn how to, after appropriately trying, accept our limits. My colleagues and I have seen too many instances of "persistence to failure" among students (perhaps faculty and staff?). We are, I would argue, paradoxically dis-empowering students and ourselves by not providing accurate feedback about when to shift gears. Failure, in short, can be valuable in learning when to seek a different path.

To put this in the language of "trophies for everyone" as used in your article, not everyone wins. The fact is that sometimes there are, indeed, losers. What we must teach is that this is OK- there's always another game. While people may not be "losers" as a personality trait, people lose all the time, a distinction that we need to keep clear when advising.

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