The Failure of Success

After leaving my last final exam, I expected to feel a great sense of accomplishment—a sense that I was prepared to exit the academic bubble and enter the real world. Instead, I felt about an hour’s worth of relief.

In the time since, I’ve had more than a week to reflect on what I’ve actually learned in my four years at Harvard College. I must confess I’m more than a little disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong; as anyone would expect, Harvard students learn a lot of facts, concepts, and even “approaches to knowledge” that the Core tries, usually painfully, to impart. After four years at the College, I understand most of economics, can hold my own in discussions on medieval literature, and discourse on various theories of justice.

And yet I find myself far less satisfied than when I finished my last high school course.

Maybe, I thought, my disappointment was founded on a mistaken notion of what an ideal education should be. When leaving high school, feeling like you’ve learned a lot of math, science, and English is great because you’re going on to another phase of your life in which those subjects will be useful. Graduating college is different; I’m not sure the ability to discuss Habermas or Aristotle will help me in my career. In fact, I’m pretty sure it won’t.

Cliché though it may sound, the important things we learn in college are about ourselves: how we work under varying levels of pressure, how we live with others, and how we allocate our time. “No one on their deathbed,” as the old adage goes, “says ‘I wish I’d worked harder.’’’

I found that I could write 24 pages in under 24 hours and still do well. I learned that a lot of the education you get at college happens outside the classroom. And I learned how to deal with failure, even if most Harvard students don’t understand the meaning of that word until reaching adulthood.

Eighteen years of a lack of failure teaches Harvard students to avoid it at all costs; we become extremely risk-averse. Ironically, classes might teach about the risk-reward relationship, but students who are too afraid to fail can only understand the former part of that relationship after experiencing it.

Even those golden children who sail through Harvard as they’ve sailed through high school fail, in a sense. They’ve failed to experience failure, and their education is impoverished as a result. I’ve learned, sometimes painfully, to accept that it’s not possible to achieve everything and that only when we risk failure, are great gains possible.

The most rewarding academic experiences I’ve had have been in classes for which I had absolutely no preparation. After all, what does an economics concentrator know about film or philosophy?

I went into these courses knowing that they would probably lower my grade point average and that I’d have to spend more time on them than on classes in my concentration. But because I learned not to go into these courses expecting perfection, they were all the more worthwhile.

The same is true for extracurricular activities. After initially being involved in more organizations than I could handle, I realized that a high-school-style approach just wouldn’t cut it. If nothing else, my liver simply wouldn’t be able to withstand all of the social events these clubs held!

In deciding to focus on The Crimson, I put all my eggs in one basket, knowing full well that my ambition might not be sated with a leadership position. But the decision to put all of my extra hours into the paper (and even hours that should have been dedicated to school and sleep) is the best one I made at Harvard. It gave me the best experience and friends I could ask for.

In the end, I realized that the criteria I’d been using to judge my education at Harvard were all off the mark. Even if the lessons that will be most valuable in the next chapter of my life have been those I’ve learned outside the classroom, my time at Harvard has been well spent. My only regret is that I didn’t learn the importance of taking risks earlier. That’s probably the most important lesson of all.

Nicholas A. Molina ’07 is an economics concentrator in Lowell House. He was business manager of The Crimson in 2006.