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The best medicine for failure
(Courtesy of Pixabay).

The best medicine for failure

If you’ve ever read what the New York Times columnists are saying about our generation, you’ve probably encountered a word or two about our phobia of failure. This cohort of college students, so the story goes, has been raised to believe that success is always achievable — and therefore mandatory. From rec soccer participation trophies to 4.0 GPAs — unweighted, of course — we’ve been sheltered from anything short of pre-prescribed notions of perfection, recognition, and achievement.

Of course, this portrayal of our generation is shallow at best, and essentially assumes the upper-middle class, helicopter-parenting upbringing describes the experience of all millennials and post-millennials. Many of us have faced challenges far more severe and mentally destabilizing than staying up until 3 a.m. studying simultaneously for several AP tests. The vast majority of us have also failed in crushing ways — even a 4.0, three varsity letters and international science competition medals can’t shield us from romantic rejections, which, in my experience, sting a lot more than a C on a math test.

Nonetheless, I do believe there’s some truth to the millennial and post-millennial stereotype of failure phobia, especially among students at schools like Stanford. Exceptional cases aside, all of our applications made it through that first round of admissions reads because we satisfied the baseline criteria: high test scores, impressive academic records and significant extracurricular involvement. We were selected for our ability to succeed — or, in other words, for our ability to avoid failure. Sure, we scored C’s on math quizzes every once in a while, but we knew how to pick up an A by the end of the semester. We did not let small failures snowball into big ones; if we had, Stanford probably wouldn’t be the college we call home.

Then we all got here. Intellectually, we all understood that Stanford would be hard, that we would be among the world’s brightest students, and that we probably wouldn’t be top of the class anymore — maybe not even in the top half. We knew we might actually fail–not the B+ kind of failure, but the NC, take again next quarter kind of fail.

I knew these things coming into Stanford, but on a stubborn, gut level, I didn’t really believe it. If I put in the work, things would find a way of working out. And, in fall quarter, they did: my transcript looked pretty similar to the one I’d left behind in high school.

Winter quarter, though, has been a different story. We all pick our poisons, and mine was MATH 51. I’d taken linear algebra and multivariable calculus before in high school and barely understood a thing, so I knew the class would challenge me. I didn’t know that “challenge” would mean receiving a D on the first midterm. But there it was, an unambiguous notation on Gradescope: 78/120. Not even two-thirds correct.

A few hours after seeing the grade, I went for my typical nighttime walk to the cactus garden in the Arboretum and took a seat on my trusty bench, facing the moonlit outlines of the cacti and trees. Realistically, I knew that I couldn’t simply bounce back from a D–no quarter-end A awaited me in MATH 51. No matter what, I wouldn’t succeed as I’d hoped to.

I was lucky that, in that moment, my mind drifted back to my summer job as a cashier for a burger restaurant back home. I thought about the men and women I’d left behind, the cooks and cashiers, who had not received a Stanford acceptance letter promising a life beyond non-slip kitchen floors. I thought about all the people in the world who show up to a job they hate because they have to make ends meet, put food on the table, pay the gas and medical bills. I thought about all the people who would give anything to be sitting on a bench in the Stanford cactus garden, ruminating about a D they’d received in a multivariable calculus class.

In the past, I’ve usually been counseled to practice self-compassion as a coping mechanism for failure. However, I’m not sure that cultivating self-compassion is always the best or most realistic way to deal with feelings of failure. That is not to criticize self-compassion, but more our ability to exercise self-compassion in the face of failure. Ideally, we would all be able to reflect on our best qualities and forgive ourselves unconditionally for failure. But in the immediate wake of failure and disappointment, fully embracing self-compassion can be difficult, if not impossible. Self-compassion requires focusing on the self, and sometimes focusing on the self is toxic no matter how you try to frame your thoughts.

That is the beauty of gratitude: it pulls you out of yourself rather than putting the magnifying glass on yourself. Focusing on the gift that is being at Stanford (or being able-bodied, or healthy, or loved or whatever appeals to you) can shift failure to the background, returning you to a more cosmic, big-picture perspective of the miracle of life, whether you’re religious about it or not. It’s like the optimistic converse of nihilism: instead of “failure doesn’t matter in the grand scheme, because we’re all going to die,” gratitude says “failure doesn’t matter in the grand scheme because life is still beautiful in so many other ways.”

At least, that’s how I felt that night in the cactus garden, thinking about how lucky I was to have all the opportunities that Stanford affords. So I got a D. Maybe you have too, or will someday. But you’ll survive it, and that alone is something to be grateful for.

 

Contact Avery Rogers at averyr ‘at’ stanford.edu.