The Great Disappointment

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What you need to know:

  • Recent findings from psychologists indicate that cases of suicide among students have increased because of unnecessary pressure to perform. 

  • What are the dangers of selling success as an automatic result of one’s effort and discipline, and failure a result of laziness? 

Many people believe that hard work will automatically lead to success, and that success is an indication of one’s effort and discipline. Sadly, this isn’t always the case. Students at all levels of education sometimes suffer great disappointment when they unexpectedly get poor results despite working hard. This leads to bitterness, shame, and resentment as they may feel judged by others as being lazy, and therefore undeserving. Although such cases are quite common, society still connects hard work to success, and children are still taught that the only way to succeed is to work hard. 

Recent findings from psychologists in Kenya indicate that cases of suicide among university students have increased because of unnecessary pressure to perform. This pressure to pass exams and then find a well-paying job can cause young people sleepless nights, and it may lead to severe depression in the event that they fail to reach their academic or career goals. If they fail an exam or struggle to get a job, such individuals may reach the conclusion that they are incapable of winning. To help us unpack this frustrating issues, we speak to four college students who once suffered a variety of disappointments that altered the course of their lives. 

Photo credit: Pool

Dave Nyakundi, 28          
Third year student, JKUAT

In 2017, I gave up on my dream of being an athlete which I had held so dear. From a tender age, I was very good at football and everyone from my village believed that I would be the Lionel Messi of today. In primary school, I joined a football club and I always excelled and made my school proud. I recall vividly being awarded for my performances and this encouraged me to keep working hard. When I joined campus, I knew that my passion for sports would grow since I now had a chance of interacting with people from different regions.

One day, I represented my school in a regional football competition and despite putting my best foot forward, we lost. Those who knew of my football capabilities in primary school were disappointed and they ended up spreading rumors in my village that I never had any talent. Up until that day, I had never failed. That experience affected me so much that I withdrew from people and became an introvert. My friends, parents and neighbors demand excellence and besides that, I had been told that my hard work in football would certainly pay off someday. I pushed myself so hard to make that dream a reality. I would wake up at 4am to practice football. I was so frustrated by my failures and eventually, I gave up on my dream to become a professional footballer.

Looking back, I wish someone would have told me the brutal, humbling, and messy reality of life – that you can put every effort to achieve your ambitions and still fail. I have struggled to pick up the pieces and move on from the disappointment but I am trying my best to get back on track and pursue my dream again.

I would encourage young people who have failed before to understand that failure is meant to push one to further excellence. It should act as a big source of motivation. The beauty of life lies in the fact that as you continue working hard to achieve your aspirations, you are likely to discover your potential. If you keep at it, you will soon realise that with determination, resilience, discipline, and dedication, everything is possible. 

Abishag Kangor, 22     
Fourth year student, Cooperative University

Any parent would be happy to see their children working hard. In fact, a parent would do anything to keep their children on the path to success. While in high school, my parents and teachers expected so much from me because I always performed very well academically. They kept telling me that hard work pays and so I knew that if I stayed focused, I would achieve my dream of being a lawyer.

Unfortunately, I ended up getting a B- grade in my final secondary school exams, which was far below what everyone, myself included, expected. I was hoping for an A- at the very least. I felt so discouraged. I felt like I had let everyone down. I became envious of those who had performed better than me and whenever I saw teachers and parents celebrating the top performers, I would be reduced to tears.

Although my parents and teachers couldn’t tell me that I had failed them, I could always see it in their eyes. They treated me differently. I recall one of the teacher telling me, ‘If only you got an A, I would have given you a great reward’. That comment made me feel hopeless, as if I would never amount to anything. Eventually, I picked myself up and accepted that my dream of becoming a lawyer was never going to come true. I embraced my current course, community development, and I believe that it will eventually bear fruits. I have learnt to give my very best at all times, and to celebrate small wins.

Photo credit: Pool

Sialo Meikuya, 21                 
Student, JKUAT

Some students can’t stand pressure, and when they feel as though they have failed to meet their parents’ expectations, they may get depressed. If not well handled, this stress may lead to suicide as the young people search for an escape route out of the pain, shame and disappointment.

There have been many incidents when I was under pressure to meet the expectations of my teachers and parents, and it broke my heart to see them end up frustrated due to my failures. I always gave my best and when I was told to keep working hard, I wondered what more was expected from me. During exams, I was always anxious as I felt I needed to prove myself. My parents and teachers expected me to excel in all science subjects, but things didn’t always go according to plan. After many frustrations, I had to come to terms with the fact that I need to celebrate every small win I get. Sometimes things don’t go as expected but provided you’ve given your best, that should be enough. Parents should be easy on their children and motivate them to achieve their dreams. And when their children fail to deliver, parents should not be too harsh or give up on them.

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Tabitha Macharia, 22      
Student, Talanta Institute 

Recently, I was invited to an event as a photographer and I remember giving my very best performance. Prior to the event, I had consulted different photographers on how I should go about my work as a professional. The phrase ‘hard work pays’ was ringing in my ears because I had heard that slogan many times from my mentors, friends, and parents.

Unfortunately, after the event, I wasn’t paid as per my contract and that really frustrated me. I was so discouraged and started doubting my ability. My parents were also disappointed as I had earlier promised them that I would repay the money I had borrowed from them to facilitate the trip. Additionally, I was bitter as I had hired equipment to use and impress my clients. The disappointment was intense. I have learnt that in life, every failure comes with a lesson. I believe if you aren’t failing, then you are not trying hard enough. No one wants to fail in life and when it happens, most students don’t have the energy to keep working hard. Many end up giving up on their dreams, which is sad.

Expert view
Ann Muthoni Ng’oi, a Nairobi-based counselling psychologist, says that most parents and guardians expect a lot from their children, and have a habit of rewarding them highly when they encounter success. As a result, most young people feel confident and smart when they succeed, but feel terrible when they fail to accomplish their targets. They get consumed by self-pity and can end up blaming themselves.

What is your advice to parents?
I understand that every parent wants the best for their child, but open communication and understanding is key in strengthening child to parent relationships. Parents should create a favourable environment where a child can openly share his or her frustrations. Over the years, we have seen students committing suicide when they fail exams. As we motivate our children to work hard, we need to understand that there are instances when they may fail to succeed.

What can parents do when their children fail?
Parents should give unconditional love and support to their children even in instances when their hard work fails to pay off. Most successful people we know say that they never gave up, even after failing. So, it is important to embrace and nurture the gifts and talents that our children have, and remind them they have what it takes to succeed no matter how many times they fail. 

How can young people cope with failure?
Most students are unable to accept failure, and they may perceive this as the ultimate proof of their incompetence, which may interfere with their state of mind. This can hugely affect them psychologically and lower their motivation, drive, and self-esteem. In some cases, students may end up killing or harming themselves when expectations are not met.
In such moments, we encourage students to seek help and support from a trusted person or professional counsellor. Counselling would help the student deal with the failure and even craft bigger dreams.