Learning From Stories: Failure (part two in a three-part series)

Updated: May 22, 2020

I failed the medical college admission test (MCAT) in the summer of 1993. At that time, I was pursuing a double major in cellular biology and secondary education with a minor inchemistry. My initial goal was to become a high school science teacher, not a physician. A pivotal conversation occurred with my godfather, who was the president of the Medical College of Wisconsin at that time. With his prompting, I made the decision to register for the MCAT, drop my secondary education major (which I had only one semester of coursework remaining) and switched my courses to meet the pre-med requirements. I then rushed to complete the med school application and began preparing for the exam.

I recall opening the envelope with the exam results and feeling an overwhelming sense of shame. My inner narrative raced down a rabbit hole of negativity, while I felt an almost unbearable sense of letting everyone down. I immediately felt embarrassed and stupid for ‘throwing away my teaching degree’, yet I was too ashamed to remain in school an extra semester to complete the remaining coursework to become a teacher. My ego had taken the steering wheel.

Fast forward approximately twenty years and I am sharing the details of this story with my nursing students on their first day of class. It is not where I had envisioned my life would go…. it is better.

“God (or ‘the universe’... or whatever you’d like to call it) writes straight with crooked lines,” my godfather always used to say. This is the message I want the students to hear. This is what I want them to reflect on as they doubt themselves or are tempted to let their egos drive their decisions. Not only do nursing students report substantially more stress, sleep disturbances, stress-related illnesses, and anxiety than students pursuing other baccalaureate degrees, professional registered nurses report the highest level of job-related stress among all health professionals.

When we share our stories of ‘failure’ with those we are blessed enough to educate and influence, we remind one another that we are not alone, that we all struggle, and that by cultivating a sense of community, we can survive and grow from those experiences. Research indicates that story-telling fuels empathy, self-reflection, and community-building. In a world which often focuses on the divisions between us, sharing stories about our own ‘failures’ offer an invaluable way to not only decrease stress, but to feel supported and connected to one another. In the end, we will go much farther when go forward ‘together.’

*Look for the part three in the storytelling series, which focuses on learning compassion from stories.


Bartlett, M.L., Taylor, H., & Nelson, D (2016). Comparison of mental health characteristics and stress between baccalaureate nursing students and non-nursing students. Journal of Nursing Education 55(2), pp. 87-90.

Robin, R. (2016). The power of digital storytelling to support teaching and learning. Digital Education 30.