Hello, Failure

If you’ve been following everyone’s advice on this blog (and my, there’s an awful lot of good advice floating around this corner of the internet), then you’ve spent some of your sophomore year putting yourself “out there.”  The safe cocoon of your Customs Group is a distant memory; perhaps you’ve even left the meal plan and you’ve fended for yourself at Main Line grocery stores for months.  On a deeper level, you’ve set yourself a more coherent academic plan: you’ve declared a major, or looked into off-campus opportunities that can focus your academic pursuits to a laser-specific set of research questions.

Maybe not, though.

Maybe others around you seem like they’re zooming off, getting accepted to competitive programs and landing fancy internships in exotic-sounding locales like “Oaxaca” or “Philadelphia.”  Maybe you also applied to these programs, you also crafted and fine-tuned your essays, you also put your name in the hat and raised your hand in class and showed up to office hours and went to that one networking event and generally followed the advice that people gave you.

And maybe you didn’t stick the landing, maybe you failed a little. (Or a lot.)

There are two main strains of failing: the first is because no matter how hard you tried or perfected your application, something was out of your control.  The second one is much more interesting: it’s because you didn’t try as hard as the situation required. Perhaps there is something profound going on in your personal life that swamps you, or perhaps you’re overcommitted—either way, there’s room for more effort on this particular task. And here’s the comforting thing: in a place like Haverford, where there are constant demands on your attention, you can’t be the best (or even YOUR best) at everything all the time.  You have to let yourself breathe free every now and again.

My sophomore year was the first time that I really tasted failure.  Of course, I’d failed in ways that felt manageable before, and these experiences built my resilience up…to a degree. When I failed during my second year of college, I felt 1) ashamed and secretive about it 2) like I had disappointed people that I respected and 3) astonished.

Let’s talk about that third feeling. Other than the occasional pop quiz in high school, I had never really failed in my life. I’d somehow lived two decades without someone tapping me on the shoulder to say “this half- to three-quarters effort that you’re giving? It’s not good enough for what I’m trying to accomplish over here.” It’s a very strange thing to write, but I had never been told that before. When I failed, here, as a Haverford sophomore, I learned that there’s no safer place to fail—and no better time to try something that you might fail at—than here, and now.

This is going to sound corny, but you know that moment in Batman Begins when Alfred asks him “and why do we fall, sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.” Alfred’s right: picking yourself up is a learning process. So at those times when something’s knocked the wind out of you, give yourself a moment to realize that you’re on the ground, and take stock of where you are. Chances are, it’s not so bad down there, but you might have to learn how to pick yourself up.

And here are some tips I’ve learned from failing:

  • A denial is rarely personal, or about you.
  • One of the most growthful and productive meetings you can have is a follow-up meeting after you’ve been declined a job, grant, or application.
    • One of the best questions to ask other people (and not just pound yourself with) is “how can I do better next time?”
  • Tell someone that things feel rocky right now. Seek empathy and welcome sympathy. Disregard people who are condescending towards you or who brush your situation off. Set yourself an appointment with CAPS for more strategies: they’re really good at this!
  • The feeling of failure is highly personalized, positional, and particular: what might feel like a failing grade to you could be a long sought-after passing grade to another person.
  • Academics who have been in the business for a long time can still get over 70% of their conference papers or fellowship proposals rejected: keep your at-bat percentage closer to your heart than your home-run stats.
  • If you don’t try anything new, you’ll never fail at anything.
    • [but you’ll risk being a chronically boring and stunted person, because the best stories involve failure]
  • If you can’t remember the last time you failed at something, it’s time to set higher goals for yourself.

So go! Calculate, and then take, your risks! Ask questions afterwards! And welcome failure into your life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>