The Celebration of Failure

The program focuses on helping students learn the skills needed to overcome failure and lower their personal expectations.

During the fall orientation at Smith College, and at the final exam time, students were astonished to see some surprising quotes on the large screen in the campus: the worst failures of their peers. 

“I failed my first college writing exam,” one student revealed.

The faculty too contributed stories of screwing up.

“I failed out of college,” an English professor wrote. “Sophomore year. Flat-out, a whole semester of F’s on the transcript, bombed-out, washed out, flunked out.”

This is a part of an initiative at Smith, “Failing Well,” that aims to “destigmatize failure.” The program intends to foster student “resilience”. 

“What we’re trying to teach is that failure is not a bug of learning, it’s the feature,” said Rachel Simmons, a leadership development specialist in Smith’s Wurtele Center for Work and Life – the unofficial “failure czar” on campus. “It’s not something that should be locked out of the learning experience. For many of our students — those who have had to be almost perfect to get accepted into a school like Smith — failure can be an unfamiliar experience. So when it happens, it can be crippling.”

The program focus on helping students learn the skills needed to overcome failure and lower their personal expectations.

“Coming into college, students have certain competitiveness that erodes relationships,” Simmons said. “They will be a series of programs focusing on friendship, loneliness and conflict.”

Students tend to be lonelier than other groups of people, Simmons said. When students don’t connect with each other, it diminishes wellness.

“Students think they need to push harder, but actually when they ease upon themselves, they are more comfortable taking healthy risks,” Simmons said.

Students who join her program, receive a ‘Certificate of Failure’, a kind of permission slip to fail. It reads: “You are hereby authorized to screw up, bomb or fail at one or more relationships, hookups, friendships, texts, exams, extracurriculars or any other choices associated with college … and still be a totally worthy, utterly excellent human.”A number of students proudly hang it from their dormitory walls.

The business world now partially accepts failure, but students are still focused on traditional performance indicators.

Résumés are filled with extracurricular activities, but they are unable to come with even small failures.

A few years ago, faculty at Stanford and Harvard coined the term “Failure Deprived”: even as students were outstanding in their core subjects, they seemed unable to cope with simple struggles. 

They realized that there was a lack of coping skills, an increase in depression and anxiety, high rates of stress.

 In 2010 after many student suicides, Cornell declared it would be an “Obligation of the University” to help students learn life skills. Soon, Stanford started the Resilience Project, in which prominent alumni recounted academic setbacks, recording them on video, an attempt to normalize struggle

There are other projects like the Success-Failure Project at Harvard, the Princeton Perspective Project, Penn Faces at the University of Pennsylvania, and so on. At Davidson College, North Carolina, there is a so-called failure fund, a series of $150 to $1,000 grants for students who want to pursue a creative endeavour, with no requirements that the idea is viable or work. 

Researchers say it’s because of the conventional child-rearing and culture: years of helicopter-parenting and micromanaging by anxious parents. Every parent wants their kid to be one up to have some sort of trophy. Come graduate admissions, many students must navigate a crazy mindset where the preparation starts early, constant pressure to achieve, long hours of preparation and high stakes 

Social Media does not help either. It is supposed to help build bridges with peers but on the contrary, many of the fragile students use it as a means of comparison. Plus everyone wants to put up positive stuff on their feed or timeline, not a failure!

And especially now, it has become important with the current scenario, that people need tools to pivot between the unsettling future, jobs, careers, to work on short-term projects, to be self-employed. 

Failure is not one moment, and overcoming it requires having multiple skills

Failure is not the end of the world…

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