Did you know that many of today’s university students are facing levels of stress, anxiety, and depression above anything recorded in recent history? In a study of 172 campuses,the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (2018) found 54% of students have sought counseling for mental health issues, 34% of students are taking medication for psychological concerns,and, incredibly, 36% have seriously considered suicide.
I teach at a university, so I have seen these issues up close and wondered what is causing them. Numerous conversations with my students have revealed that a major cause is fear of failure, in both their personal and their academic lives. For many of them, this fear initiates paralyzing emotions because it directly correlates with their identity and dreams of their future.
As a business professor and startup consultant, I educate entrepreneurs about the power and importance of failure in order to help set up key validation strategies and minimize risk. The startup community has learned to embrace failure and use it to strategically pivot business models to better engage customers. Successful startups find strategic ways to transfer failure into learning opportunities in order to build sustainability.
The Right Business Model
Why can’t we all use this entrepreneurial mindset? We can take the strategies startups use to turn failure into a positive line item and address this generation’s mental health crisis—and, in the process, help all of us take a new look at the power of failure.
The Lean Startup model (Ries, 2011) that outlines the Build-Measure-Learn cycle can be modified to help us turn the fear and occurrence of failures in our lives into an opportunity to empower our identity.
Let’s start with a basic startup business. To survive in this current entrepreneurial revolution, startups must run a continued loop of innovation. The first step is ideation, followed by building or prototyping, then the essential measure and validation phase to determine whether the product or service has market fit, and finally learning about how to improve it based on feedback (both positive and negative) prior to ideating again.
The ability to complete the loop and learn from it allows a company to stay current with changing market needs and ensures viability and continuous innovation. Of course, negative market response—often defined as “failure”—is identified early, is learned from, and initiates changes that will hopefully result in positive ROI once the cycle is completed. In some cases, the change may be ceasing the initiative altogether, preventing further bleeding of resources. From a corporate strategy perspective, this can be defined as a success.
The Positive Mindset Model
Now, what if we took the same feedback loop and translated it from the stages needed for a startup to survive to steps students can use to reduce stress and anxiety and help them positively empower their personal identity?
Let’s start with an entrepreneurship mindset that seeks opportunities to add value based on the resources available. This mindset represents the fundamental open and optimistic outlook of today’s students. Today’s generation, partially as a result of social media and a desire for independence, seeks to be active in many arenas of life. This list is limitless but includes acts such as posting opinions on Instagram or Facebook, applying for jobs, or seeking acceptance in a social class. As a result of any significant action, there will be some form of feedback.
What the startup model shows us is that it is how we embrace and validate this feedback that will determine what happens next. When the feedback is positive, we allow it to flow through to shape and reinforce our identity. But when the feedback is negative and our perception is that failure has occurred, we allow it to negatively affect our identity, causing various degrees of anxiety, stress, and possibly depression.
Instead, using the same approach as startups do, we can choose to embrace negative feedback, validate its worth, and evaluate whether it has any merit. As in business, when we actively engage in today’s opinionated and demanding society, we will be bombarded with responses of various tones. We need to examine and consciously determine how to embrace these replies and their impact on us. When we apply for a job, ask someone out, or play a game and our desired response is not achieved, a form of failure has occurred.
So when failure occurs—and it’s a “when,” not an “if”—we need to ask the questions a business would. What can I learn? What would I do differently next time? In this way, we become empowered by the engagement, become wiser and it correspondingly empower our identity. And, as shown in the startup model, our identity will influence our mindset as we continue to engage in the world around us.
Our Empowered Identity
We can all reflect on how we deal with failure and how it affects our identity. My prayer is that we look at the failure through a new lens, approaching it with a filter of learning to increase personal wisdom. To consciously and strategically embrace life’s feedback and learn from its presence. Let’s ensure that our identity will not be based on unavoidable failures but on the wisdom we can gained from them.
In doing so, we will discover how powerful we really are!
American College of Health Association (ACHA): National College Health Assessment. 2018 Spring Report.
Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH): 2018 Annual Report.
Ries, E. (2011). The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses; Crown Business.