Think You’re Failing? Look Around.

A story about seeing past our “failure filters”.

Last year my wife, Tessa, returned to school for a second bachelor’s degree, this time in Music Therapy, and it’s definitely a different experience the second time around. For one thing, we’re old enough to be parents to most of her classmates — but that hasn’t stopped her from reaching out and making a lot of really close friends.

(Most hilarious was after one class where they had a lecture about middle-aged development. One of her freshman friends actually asked her, “Do you feel old?” She had to laugh. Apparently, “early-forties” is “old” when you are eighteen.)

This last semester was especially hard, with a heavy workload and some particularly challenging classes. One of these, Aural Skills, involved (among other things) learning how to transcribe music from hearing it just a bare handful of times. They had to write at least the melody, but sometimes the bass line, too, as well as chords, and time signature and key signature.

This was a real challenge for my wife, and many of the students.

One day at lunch, Tessa was listening as one of her close friends, a fellow classmate who was feeling discouraged by her classes, talked about how frustrating the dictations were in Aural Skills, and how she just couldn’t seem to get it. She had begun to question whether she was really cut out for the Music Therapy program at all.

“Are you having trouble in any of your other classes?” Tessa asked her.

Negative. She was doing fine, for the most part. It was really just those dictations in Aural Skills that were pulling her down.

“Isn’t it interesting,” my wife said, “how a struggle in one area can color your perception of all the rest?”

A struggle in one area can color your perception of all the rest.

That one insight turned it all around for her friend. It was true! She was letting her frustration with Aural Skills — with one part of Aural Skills!— color her perception of all the rest of her experience. She wasn’t a failure at Music Therapy. She was actually doing very well. She was excelling.

Are you struggling with something? Are you feeling like you’re failing? Are you wondering if you’re really cut out for this mountain you thought to climb?

Look around. Consider what you’re succeeding at. Look how far you’ve climbed so far. Put the problem in perspective.

Once you see past the “failure filter”, you might just realize that you’re doing better than you thought.

If this article struck a chord for you, I’ve written about a related challenge, occupational burnout, in To Smile Again, Avoiding the Trap, and It’s Not Your Fault. If you’d like to chat about any of this, I’m @jamis on Twitter, or you can email me at