“When a defining moment comes along, you define the moment, or the moment defines you.”

I have always presumed that these words, which have often struck a chord with me, came from a great philosopher, or an inspirational leader, or at least a distinguished sportsperson. So, when I looked them up in preparation for writing this week’s Master’s Voice, I was surprised to find them attributed to the character ‘Tin Cup’, the titular hero of a 1996 golf-themed romantic comedy. The fact that these words were first uttered by Kevin Costner, however, does nothing to diminish their message. The message is a good one. When things don’t go to plan, when we meet with failures or setbacks, we can do one of two things: we can let the situation overwhelm us, allowing ourselves to be weakened and diminished; or we can take what we can from the experience, learn from it, and move on.

I am particularly mindful of this message during exam season. The Fifth Form and Upper Sixth Form IB students have been busy sitting mocks this week; next week, it will be the turn of our A Level students. I am well aware of the pressures they are under, and well aware that these pressures come from many quarters: peers, parents, universities, imagined futures. The impact on mental health and wellbeing is something that concerns me greatly. Increasing numbers of young people suffer from exam-related anxieties – anxieties stemming from the fear that one dropped grade, one mistake, one broken link in the chain, will determine the future.

Which is why I was intrigued when Mr Morris stood up in assembly on Monday and spoke to us about the ‘Summer of 1995’: the year he failed A Level History.

A few weeks ago, the adventurer Ben Fogle’s spoke about how he had not allowed his A Level results to define him, disastrous as they seemed at the time, and encouraged us to see failure as ‘just a different ending’. Mr Morris took up this thread. Drawing on the wisdom of Aristotle, he encouraged us to see failures in the context of a whole life’s story, a story that is one of personal growth, and one that takes a long time to unfold.  In the narrative of our lives, we could be tempted to see a failure as a dramatic plot twist, we may even allow it to dominate a whole chapter. But, in keeping with the narrative theme, Mr Morris had another suggestion. A failure does not merit a whole chapter of our lives; it is not even worth a whole sentence. Instead, said Mr Morris, we should see failure as a mere ‘punctuation mark’.

A failure, if approached with the right mind-set, is not a limiter, or a definer, but an opportunity. Like a comma, it provides a chance to pause; like any form of punctuation, it can bring greater clarity.

But, to this new metaphor, let’s add something else: if failure is to be a punctuation mark, make it a good one. Make it an exclamation mark that shakes you up a bit! Make it a semi-colon that provides balance; or one that offers an alternative. Make it a colon: a gateway to something else. Whatever you do, make it interesting.

Just don’t let it be a full stop.

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