One of the most difficult lessons in life is learning how to fail. That’s right, failure. Being wrong. Inadequacy. Not succeeding. Many of us, including myself, try to avoid these feelings of incompetence by striving to maintain a streak of perfect first attempts. But the stress that we bring upon ourselves to uphold this unrealistic expectation slowly chips away at our faultless facade until we crumble from unavoidable rejection.
Failure is not a requirement imposed by W&M, nor is it a class that you can register for. Rather, it is a lesson that you will undoubtedly face and recognize as part of your college experience. The lesson lies not in the perils of failure, but how we rise from it. It’s a lesson that I was taught in one of my classes during my senior year at William & Mary and initially met with resistance.
In biostatistics, we were given weekly 10 minute challenges specifically designed for us to fail. Whether our answers were correct or our coding program left us with a page full of error messages, we each had to have a product of our work ready to share with the class by the end of the allotted time. We would moan and groan and force ourselves through the exercise, racking our brains for anything that might help us find the answer. It was frustrating, defeating, and seemed to counter the idea of learning and excelling in a class.
However, I believe that I learned the most in that class from learning how to fail. Our failed attempts fostered creative problem solving and forced us to search for new perspectives. Determining what aspects of our efforts worked or ‘failed’ in such a short period of time taught us to learn from our mistakes and push past the idea of defeat in order to find a solution. Intelligence is not measured by always knowing the correct answer. Progressive thinkers, those who find the solutions to the world’s greatest problems, do not come up with the correct answer the first time they take a crack at a question. Failure is about taking a leap of faith into discovery, using creativity to figure out why an answer is wrong, and proceeding from those findings.
I think we are naturally afraid to fail because we find comfort in sticking with what we know and crave the praise that comes with success. But without taking risks, we remain unfulfilled and are left in a whirling thought storm of “what ifs?” If you do not fail, you do not learn. If you fear vulnerability, you will remain stagnant and hinder your own progress.
This lesson has resonated deeply with me recently. I write this in part because failure has always been a hard pill for me to swallow. Particularly in life after graduation, it is easy to get bogged down by all the little things that make you feel like you have made the wrong choices. A bad day at work, an empty bank account, a missed connection can all add up and leave you wondering “where did I go wrong?” But you must remind yourself that you are not failing, you are simply learning what works, what doesn’t, and what you can do to adjust when faced with hardship. This doesn’t mean that it can’t feel scary at times. If you’re not afraid, you are not pushing yourself to find your true potential, true happiness, and recognition of all that you have accomplished.
Failure does not mean final. It means pick yourself up and try again. Ditch the nagging thought that ‘failure is not an option’ and embrace the idea that failure is only the beginning.