I've had a few messages from students who were disappointed by their exam results and wanted some of my wannabe-life-guru advice on how to deal with the sadness they were feeling. Let's tackle the symptom first, and then the disease.

The symptom - Feeling bad about results

Whenever I'm feeling bad about anything, I go through the following thought process - Firstly, I work out whether there's anything I can do to remedy the situation and/or learn from it. Then having done that, I ask whether continuing to feel bad about it will have any further benefit. If not (as in the vast majority of cases), I simply choose not to feel bad about it anymore.

So in the case of exam results, the disappointment that comes from getting (in our view) 'bad' results is useful insofar as it encourages us to work harder next time (if that's even what we really want). Beyond that however, continuing to feel bad about our results (which are now completely outside our control) is a bit pointless, so we can choose not to feel that way.

If we're not used to thinking in this way, this idea that we can choose our thoughts/emotions might seem ridiculous. But it really does work - to find out more, you might like to look into stoicism (a school of philosophy that's seen a resurgence in recent years). My favourite book on the subject is (as lots of you know) Happy by Derren Brown.

A Guide To The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine is also a very good introduction to the topic.

If you check those books out, you'll be armed with some tools for dealing with negative emotions that you'll use for the rest of your life. Or, at the very least, you'll be reading something interesting instead of wallowing in disappointment :)

The disease - Identity crisis

The reason most of us feel disappointed about bad exam results is that our sense of identity is tied up in our exam performance to some degree.

If our grades make up too much (or in some cases, all) of our identity and then we perform poorly, we're naturally going to be devastated.

The solution is to diversify our identity. I was going to write something profound about this, but then I googled "diversify identity" and came across this Mark Manson article about exactly that, written in such a nice way that there's no point me rephrasing it. On that note, Mark Manson is one of my favourite writers and his blog is one I follow semi-religiously.

When you have money, it’s always smart to diversify your investments. That way if one of them goes south, you don’t lose everything. It’s also smart to diversify your identity, to invest your self-esteem and what you care about into a variety of different areas — business, social life, relationships, philanthropy, athletics — so that when one goes south, you’re not completely screwed over and emotionally wrecked.

Let's leave it there for now. If you're disappointed by your exam results, firstly it's okay - we've all been there :) Secondly, remind yourself of the Serenity Prayer (below) and look into some stoic methods for dealing with negative emotions. And thirdly, consider that your identity might be too wrapped up in your grades, and think about how you might diversify it.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can;and wisdom to know the difference.

Further Reading

  1. https://markmanson.net/diversify-your-identity
  2. https://dailystoic.com/what-is-stoicism-a-definition-3-stoic-exercises-to-get-you-started/

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