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Are you Stuck in the “Valley of Disappointment” with your degree?

Updated: Sep 21, 2021

By F. Z.


The COVID-19 pandemic has tested and challenged our resilience in so many ways.

The lockdowns across the world and sudden changes to the student university experience have created many uncertain situations. Unprecedented times like this can leave us all feeling more anxious and stressed compared to regular times. This can negatively impact our mental health and our motivation to pursue our goals and aspirations, whether academically or personally.

There are many ways to maintain our productivity when stuck at home or to make new friends and socialise virtually.

However, as human beings, we can quickly lose motivation when we start to experience the symptoms of “Zoom fatigue” or “lockdown fatigue”. Our mind will engage with various forms of negative self-talk such as “it is too complicated”,“I can't go through this", and “it won’t work”. These negative connotations can eventually impact our overall self-esteem, pushing us to a negative territory called the “Valley of Disappointment”.

What is the “Valley of Disappointment”?

When we set a specific goal, we often expect the journey towards achieving the goal to be straightforward and linear. As humans, we want to see results quickly, but the benefits of our efforts are often delayed.

For example, as students, we strive to get good grades, graduate with flying colours, and secure a good job. However, the journey towards achieving these goals may not be easy and we might stumble upon many challenges which demand a lot of efforts and hard work. In a situation where we fail to get the desired outcome, we can quickly feel discouraged, resulting in a “valley of disappointment”.

1. Plateau of Latent Potential


As James Clear writes in his bestselling book Atomic Habits, it is not until a considerable amount of time of hard work do we understand the full value of all our previous efforts. The weeks or months of hard work were not wasted; but instead, were being stored.

Before we can see the full value of our efforts - we have to endure a challenging period, which can be called the “Plateau of Latent Potential”.


2. How do we stick with our goal when we face setbacks and disappointments?

Before I go into detail, let me share a short story about one of the most successful innovators of all time - Thomas Edison.

Before Edison provided the world with one of the most valuable inventions in humans’ history, he faced many setbacks and challenges. He experienced the “valley of disappointment” - the process of creating such a fantastic product was not straightforward. As the trajectory of the Plateau of Latent Potential” shows, with time, effort, and in Edison’s case, thousands of prototypes, he finally got it right and invented one of the most practical and revolutionary technology in modern times - the incandescent light bulb. He famously said, "I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

As a result of his efforts and hard work, during his lifetime, Edison held a total of 1,093 U.S. patents for his inventions and was credited for helping to build the U.S. economy during the Industrial Revolution. Edison’s success story epitomised the “never-give-up” attitude and taught us the true meaning of “grit”.


What is “Grit”?

Grit is a term coined by Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. I learned about the theory behind the word grit after watching a TED Talk by Professor Duckworth.

As a psychologist, Professor Duckworth studied different kinds of people, from school kids to world-class athletes. Her work's primary purpose was to figure out what separates successful and unsuccessful people who studied, performed, or competed in the same kind of challenging situation or environment. After conducting various types of research and questionnaires, Professor Duckworth concluded that the main criteria to be successful in our endeavour was not social intelligence, nor good looks, physical health, or even a stratospheric IQ, but our “grittiness”.

“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.”

Professor Angela Duckworth

Grit was the power behind Thomas Edison’s success in finding the best prototype for his brilliant invention after so many failed attempts. Grit is the difference between why some PhD students decide to drop out after a few years and why others persevere and ultimately reached the finishing line. And without a doubt, grit is also the main characteristic that separates Olympic-level athletes from the average ones.

You must be wondering how to become “gritty” like Thomas Edison and all those successful students and athletes.

Or, on a personal level, how do you to stick and stay motivated to achieve a new year’s resolutions, such as losing weight or eating more healthily. How do you stick at them past February or March?


How do you become gritty?

It turns out that Professor Duckworth received many similar questions from a range of people, including parents, who want their children to become "gritty" and successful in their lives.

I believe many people have heard the phrase What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”, which was initially conceived by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in 1888. Even though we have listened to this phrase replicated many times in various platforms, from inspirational speeches to pop cultures, Nietzsche intended to send a resiliency sentiment when confronted with challenges or adversities.

However, not every human being can emerge stronger and confident after a challenging time. Every so often, it does the opposite to some people who end up struggling and failing in their pursuits. Hence, the next pressing question becomes, how to persevere, time and again, rather than giving up on challenges and avoiding them in the first place?

Three steps: Growth mindset, Optimistic self-talk, and Perseverance over adversity

1. Based on Professor Duckworth’s studies, the best way to build grit, which is to be passionate and persevere for very long-term goals, is by planting and creating a positive mental attitude called “growth mindset.” To have a "growth mindset", we need to update our belief about our intelligence and talents. Rather than succumbing to a negative mindset, keep reminding our brains that intelligence, or any other skill, can improve with effort. Every time we feel like giving up on something, remind ourselves that our brains are remarkably adaptive and become stronger when learning new things.

2. Secondly, practice optimistic self-talk instead of negative self-talk, as mentioned at the beginning of this article. Replace phrases such as"it is too complicated" or"I can't go through this” with more optimistic sentences such as “this is hard. I shouldn't feel bad if I can’t do it yet” or "I am a learner! I love that.” Positive language can cultivate hope which eventually makes us more resilient during challenging times.

3. Finally, when we have the right mindset combined with burning interest and passion for pursuing a specific goal, we will naturally put more effort and be willing to do something repeatedly, ultimately leading to mastery.


In summary, utilise the power of a growth mindset and optimistic self-talk during the challenging phase of the “valley of disappointment”. Remind yourself that you have the passion, capabilities, and talents to pursue your goals. Embrace setbacks and challenges as opportunities to build resilience, grow, and become a stronger person; mentally, spiritually, and physically. Whenever you are trying to persevere through challenging times, be it virtual learning, learning new skills, or struggling to find your “light bulb moment”, always remember that: “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” - Thomas Edison.


F. Z. did a Bachelor of E-Commerce degree at Multimedia University, Malaysia prior to completing a MSc in Logistics and Operations Management at Cardiff University. Following this she undertook a MRes in Urban Sustainability and Resilience at University College London. She is now conducting interdisciplinary research into supply chain resilience and consumer behaviour during natural disasters at University College London (Civil, Environmental and Geomatics Engineering Department).

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