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Student Insights

Failing was horrible – but it taught me so much

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 25 Feb 2021

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Simie Khabra’s path to qualification wasn’t a smooth one – but it taught her valuable lessons about resilience, self-confidence and being kind to herself

When Simie Khabra failed her Professional Level Audit and Assurance exam in 2013, she was devastated. In the second year of a BrightStart apprenticeship at Deloitte, the result also meant the end of her training agreement ­– and potentially her career. “It was horrible,” she says frankly. “I felt embarrassed. The hardest part was that I had this path laid out for me, and the idea of having it all taken away was awful.”

Simie had joined Deloitte as a school leaver, attracted by the prospect of working and earning straight away, rather than spending four years at university. “I had applied for university, but I didn’t really want to be a student,” she remembers. “Then my economics teacher recommended the Deloitte scheme. As soon as I started understanding more about the ACA, and the fact that you could start training with just A levels, university seemed a bit like an expensive waste of time. It meant that I was able to move out of home and live on my own in a flat, which as an 18-year-old seemed very grown up and glamorous!”

Looking back a decade later, though, she admits that going straight from school into the world of work and studying for the ACA was a shock. “One of the things I really struggled with was trying to allocate myself as a resource,” she says. “Recognising that I had a job, but that I also had exams, and they took up the same amount of energy. At the time I worked very long hours, as every trainee accountant does, and I had no idea how to say no. I also found the job less stressful than the idea of doing the exams, so I tended to prioritise work over studying.”

By the time of the Audit and Assurance exam, Simie had already failed three previous Certificate Level exams. “The first time it was a real shock, because I’d done well at school and had had really good grades. I’d never encountered a situation where I couldn’t grasp material and pass an exam,” she says. “Then it was like failing became inevitable. It just kept perpetuating itself because I failed another one and then another one, and then I got to this one.

“The fear of failing was acting in the place of motivation. It was like the stick versus the carrot. Bizarrely even the prospect of losing my job wasn’t enough to make me study – it didn’t motivate me, it just made me really, really anxious. And so in my head I already felt like I was going to fail.”

Simie had the option to appeal her termination, but had started to question her entire career choice. “I’d decided that accounting didn’t make me happy, and that this career path wasn’t right for me anymore. All my friends were either at uni having a good time or were on gap years, and I felt maybe I’d jumped too fast too soon and needed to take a step back and recalibrate.” She was on the verge of applying for a job in Topshop when a senior partner at Deloitte suggested a move within the firm instead.

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She accepted a position in head office finance at the Milton Keynes office, and moved back home. Surrounded by accountants and enjoying working with numbers again, she soon realised she wasn’t ready to turn her back on finance just yet. “It was audit that wasn’t for me, rather than accounting,” she says. “Having exposure to more back office accountants also made me realise that the client-facing aspect wasn’t for me – it added a layer of stress and pressure that I just wasn’t a fan of. I really liked being in the same place with the same people, just dealing with different kinds of problems rather than different kinds of companies.”

Soon after, she says, she decided that if she wanted to progress, she was going to have to pass the ACA. “I wanted to do it, but I had this looming fear that I was incapable because I’d failed so many times. So I made a deal with myself. I thought, if I just buy the books, study on my own, pay for the exam and schedule the whole thing myself, I’m not going to let anybody down if I fail.

“It comes back to what I was saying about the stick and the carrot: when I was in audit, if I failed, I lost my job. Suddenly this was if I pass, I’ve proven something to myself, I’ve bettered myself. That was like a switch. As soon as I started thinking about my exams as completely mine, it took away all the pressure that I was going to let someone down or embarrass myself.”

That Audit and Assurance exam was the last one Simie failed. From then on, she passed every exam first time, and qualified as an ICAEW Chartered Accountant in 2018. “It changes your view of yourself, passing and failing,” she says. “When I failed, I felt like I was inadequate, and that I had this tag of failure on me. And then when I passed, it suddenly reversed my mindset. How can I be a failure if I passed? And who is making me feel like this? It gave me a lot of confidence. It wasn’t me – it was just the way I was thinking about it and the environment I found myself in.”

Her success, she believes, was in a meticulous routine. She studied for an hour during her lunch break each day – something she hadn’t been able to do in audit – and then for another two hours in the evening. A friend she had met on her first day at Deloitte was taking the exams at the same time, so she had someone to share the experience and talk things through with. Her colleagues were supportive too. “I was surrounded by accountants in my new role – you couldn’t look anywhere and not find somebody to support you. So I was very lucky,” she says.

After qualifying, Simie spent a year and a half working for construction company Skanska, where she progressed from being a statutory accountant to looking after all of the firm’s central costs. In March last year, she joined Ocado Technology as a finance manager – a role she took on just two weeks before lockdown began. While meeting many of her colleagues only virtually has made it harder to form friendships, and switching off can be difficult when living and working in the same place, she has found a balance. She is strict about taking time away from work – something she has carried over from her self-studying days.

“I’m a real advocate for taking a break,” she says. “There’s an hour split out every single day in my diary. I noticed when I was studying that if I was nice to myself, and recognised when I was tired and needed a break, then I would always be much more efficient either side of that break. And I carry that through to work. If I have a break, I tend to work fewer hours, because I’m more efficient. I get to take a step back and actually think about what I’m doing.”

She offers the same advice to any student who, like she did, might be struggling with the ACA. “Take a step back, no matter how long that takes – even if it’s just for five minutes. If you’ve failed, remind yourself why you’re doing it. Are you doing it for the right reasons? Is it what you actually want? Don’t be afraid to make tough decisions if it’s not – but if it is, then persevere. You’re probably a lot more capable than you think you are. Be strict with your time, be realistic – and be kind to yourself.”