Dealing with Disappointment

by Darrell Koh (16A13A)

As any exam looms closer, one inevitably thinks of the gruelling exams for which the descent into “mega mugging madness” is the only method of survival. At this point, it is common for exam-related worries to be vocalized, as evident from the multiple cries of “I’m so screwed for Econs!”. However, some emotions prompted by receiving results are surely not vocalized with the same enthusiasm. Of the diverse range of feelings that may be produced, two prominent emotions come to mind: satisfaction and disappointment.  The former may readily manifest itself physically, while the latter often shrouds itself in silence. This article will attempt to give disappointment a voice and suggest ways in which those who feel disappointed can stand up again and eventually achieve satisfaction.

Trying to better understand our disappointment is quite akin to scrutinizing a mere piece of the jigsaw puzzle.  We may have yet to see the full picture of that which resides in every individual, but its small singularity in no way diminishes its significance. The main reason for trying to understand emotions is for introspection of the self that can lead to an increased awareness for self-consciousness that is crucial for personal development. The reasons for disappointment can vary from person to person, but in general there seem to be two main reasons for disappointment: The first is when they know they could have done better but did not achieve the grades they were capable of getting; the other reason is when individuals feel that they have worked as hard as they possibly could, but have not managed to break past a certain boundary.  For the first reason, it seems obvious that the remedy is just to work harder, but that is often easier said than done– this will be explored later in the article.  As for the latter, greater effort might be a part of the solution to remedying disappointment, but more often than not the issue lies with learning to manage one’s expectations

Anyone will tell you that effort is a requirement for success, but merely acknowledging this fact is very different from acting on it . Here, I attempt to illustrate the difficulties of putting in effort, especially when one is not convinced of the results it can bring.  This is especially the case for Humanities subjects, where there is no definite answer scheme and where marks seem subject to the will of the marker. In particular, Arts Stream students may find this statement familiar: “You aren’t exactly wrong, it’s just that you could be more right.” This statement effectively sums up the ambiguity of some subjects, and how there is seemingly no clear path where effort proportionally translates to reward. Without such a metaphorical light at the end of the tunnel, all effort seems like a futile, desperate cry in a sea of hopelessness. A resulting disbelief in the ability of effort to bring success would then reduce impetus to work hard.  If we cannot see how effort produces results, then no matter how much rhetoric about the importance of hard work we hear, there would be no impetus to make significant effort – which hampers progress of any sort.

Pretty much.

Nevertheless, one avenue we can turn to for proof of effort is those who have done well, but to do so requires one to be in control of disappointment from our results and not let it overwhelm us through priming us for negative thoughts. I believe that there is a greater tendency for success to be stigmatised when one is feeling disappointment. In the case of someone who is disappointed with his results, exclamations of joy by those who are satisfied would likely be seen as boasting, and any complaint by someone who has scored higher would seem baseless. Most of us may have overheard someone openly lamenting a B as we struggle to come to terms with an E of our own.  Handling such situations requires sustained effort by both parties. Those who have done well should be sensitive and understand that not everyone has achieved the same results, while those who are disappointed should see how the successes of others can be evidence of the wonders of effort and thus be inspired to put in effort as well. Given that we are not mere passive automatons who can freely control emotions as we wish, perhaps a physical alternative is for those who intend to whine about their Bs to only do so with your closer, more understanding friends. Similarly, those who are feeling disappointed may find it helpful to temporarily avoid those who have done better.

Looking at the bigger picture, a sense of wonder and the desire to learn from others shifts emphasis away from ourselves and encourages a way of thinking that expands beyond the self. This in turn increases our propensity to put others before ourselves and promotes friendlier neighbourhoods where people are more willing to help. However, a paradox also exists in that an over-fixation with the success of others can inevitably lead to comparing with them which leaves one feeling demoralised. Those who are disappointed and whose scores tend to lie around the lower percentile are especially vulnerable to this: if they seek to emulate those who have done well and this is likely to happen if the focus moves away from the effort to the outcome.  Trite as this may sound, importance should be placed on the process  to prevent one from being consumed by the desire to do well but not understanding how to do so.

Nevertheless, there might inevitably be some comment in response to learning from the achievements of others about how some people are “naturally talented” and “don’t need to study very much” for the exams. These comments, intentionally or otherwise, end up shifting the spotlight away from endeavour to some intrinsic quality determined by birth. This may then lead to a sense of despair for people start to think that they will never be able to replicate such results. While the perception that some are more advantaged than others may be true to some extent in that certain people pick up certain concepts quicker or are better able to compartmentalise information, the hours toiling away at that Math Olympiad set of questions must have had no small role in making that genius, a “genius”. Natural talent can be a great advantage to individuals, but without constant effort to maintain these gifts, they will surely wane. in fact, much of our current habits and development track is the result of external environments and conditions that have influenced the way in which we seek to solve problems. But the important point to note here is that genius is not magically laden unto the select few.  Therefore, it is imperative that we look beyond the supposed intrinsic talent of others and try to see how they have benefitted from effort. This will allow us to better convince ourselves of the value and thus need for effort, and be truly motivated to work hard.  

All that has been said so far has focused on effort as a solution to deal with the first source of disappointment which is not performing as well as one expects. The key point of all of this lies in the expectations we have and how willing we are to fulfil these expectations, of which mastery will likely solve the second reason for disappointment. Learning to manage expectations is important in that we do not set unrealistic goals for ourselves, but we must beware the trap of being satisfied with status quo in the belief that all that can be achieved has been achieved.

But be careful not to have any expectations, for that means you would have no real satisfaction as well!

Some of us are likely to experience a period whereby it feels as though every means for improvement has been tried but no visible progress has been made.  At times this can get incredibly frustrating, which can lead to despondency or infuriation at seemingly stubborn results. During such a point, consider reflecting on the current expectations we hold for ourselves and decide whether sufficient effort has been put and/or how willing we are to make that effort if it has not been undertaken. If the answer to these questions comes with a tinge of reluctance, then it is perhaps the expectation itself that must change for satisfaction to ever come about. The time we have studying here is limited; and there are some things that may not improve marginally within the time we are restricted to. It does sound depressing at first to acknowledge that it is rather difficult to overcome time – a limiting factor – no matter how much effort is put in. However, redrawing the lines for expectations and coming to terms with these revised expectations will promote greater joy in the long-term. This is especially the case for those who are personally disappointed with their results despite having a “good” grade in terms of their percentile: i.e. those who may feel like their B or C is low compared to the 5 people they know who have high As. Relooking expectations may lead to them realising that their score is already considered decent by comparison with how the rest of the batch has done, and that to pull the grade up may require effort that might raise another subject from a U to a B. Given that our time is a limited resource and we seek the most efficient allocation of such, it seems obvious which choice is more rational.

That being said, acknowledging inherent limitations should not become an excuse for us to plateau and give up the pursuit for improvement. Just as society should fear stagnation, so too should we fear a halting of personal development. Some limitations we impose unto ourselves may be more of a mental barricade than a realistic impediment which ends up restricting our space for growth. It would be a dangerous thing to construct a glass ceiling above ourselves and paint it over with illusions that prevent us from seeing that the self-constructed limit is far lower than it could be. Such an act can only lead to transient satisfaction, for we may never reach our true potential. This may well be the case for those who may be the sort to be overjoyed to find that they have passed. It is good if that satisfaction comes from the understanding that all which can be done has been done in terms of effort and passion, but can be undesirable if the joy lulls one into a false sense of security when they could do so much better with comparatively little effort. Thus, there is a need for us to be able to draw the line between realistic expectations, and an underestimation of one’s capabilities. Only then can we identify where we stand in order to make appropriate changes. Such will be the difference between genuine satisfaction and fleeting happiness.

At the end of it all though, this period might make up just a tiny speck of the experience that is life which leads to the doubts we may have on the significance of exams, especially when contrasted against the nebulous future. Nevertheless, given that exams can be a significant source of satisfaction or disappointment at this point in our short, insignificant lives, it seems logical to attempt an inspection at how they can bring forth such reactions within us and seek ways to produce more of the former rather than the latter.

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