On Failure at Harvard

Students at Harvard do not often discuss failure seriously. We sometimes speak ironically about failure, but we won’t talk about it earnestly. We deploy it self-mockingly, which leaves us neither vulnerable nor more self-aware. I wonder if there isn’t something unfortunate about this habit, something that could be gained by talking more earnestly about failure—what it means, if it matters, or what we might learn from it that could serve us well in the future.

Last week I experienced a bout of self-styled failure of the type that seems only possible for seniors on the cusp of “the real world” and all of its discontents. In the span of a few short days, I was rejected by three post-graduate fellowships, my thesis writing stalled in a pool of senseless intellectual muddle, and I realized that I would need to find a job in the coming months. I imagined that my job search would involve marketing myself with catchphrases like “critical thinker” and “well-versed in conceptual analysis and contextualization,” lest I end up back at my parents’ house come September.

What struck me most about all of this was the difficulty in talking about it with people at Harvard—even close friends. I don’t mean that I felt uncomfortable sharing it, about exposing my own ineptitude or disappointment: in fact, I almost always feel more comfortable sharing my failures than I do sharing my successes. Instead, I found that people at Harvard have difficulty holding a serious discussion about failure in the lives of our friends and classmates.

Our immediate response upon hearing about the failures of our friends is dismissal. We explain to them why it was a mistake, a fluke, an error that someone else made, anyone’s fault but theirs. We tell them, “You got passed over for that job/fellowship/law school spot? Impossible. You’re the most qualified person I know. Someone clearly made a mistake.” Or we immediately point to some possible future success and expound upon its inevitability: “What? You didn’t get the Brumblehall Fellowship for the Study of Medieval Armory? Well, you will definitely get the Pumpernickle Fellowship—I have no doubt in my mind.”

When my friends attempt to reassure me in this way, I always want to yell back, “Well, I do have doubt in my mind! In fact, I’m seriously doubting my chances right now, as I should be, since 100 people applied for the same spot as I did!” But I can’t yell that, and instead I inevitably shrug my shoulders and mumble something about odds and back-up plans. Of course, this is partially because exuberant praise embarrasses those of us brought up to value modesty.  However, it is also because such extreme faith often seems misplaced, refusing as it does the possibility that we might just not be as successful as we had hoped.

I don’t mean to demonize this behavior; it is natural. Harvard is a stressful place, and we all hope that by dismissing failures and extolling the virtues of future glory we can make our friends’ lives less stressful. But I wonder if we sometimes miss an important moment of growth and development by denying failure. As a senior—while my classmates are continuously (and deservingly) winning fellowships, medical school offers, and jobs at McKinsey and Co—I can’t help but feel that it might be beneficial to sit down and talk seriously about failure.

­Many Harvard students have never seriously failed at anything in their life, and many feel understandably uncomfortable talking about disappointment with their own parents. Failure exposes our weakness, brings out our insecurities, and clouds our vision of the future—but it is a permanent fixture of human experience, both inevitable and perhaps invaluable to the real richness of life. By dismissing it, we risk missing its lessons and overlooking its centrality to our own self-improvement. We ought to struggle with failure, to think about what it means for our expectations and our goals. It provides an opportunity to learn a lesson about our own limitations and capabilities sooner, rather than later—at a time when opportunities to begin anew are not so difficult to come by.

This does not mean that we should stop cheering up our friends, nor does it mean that we should avoid contextualizing failure by pointing out how well situated most of us truly are, with the force of the Harvard name on our diploma and the wealth of its resources at our disposal Talking about failure can be difficult; I suspect that such discussions will always be uncomfortable. But the challenge is worth undertaking. Failure today may be the loss of a relationship, the sting of a bad grade, or the inability to find post-collegiate employment, but life often brings more weighty difficulties—infidelity, financial trouble, and death. Learning to talk about these experiences and learn from them is a process worth embarking upon.

Benjamin T. Hand ’12, a social studies concentrator, lives in Currier House.


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