Oct. 31, 2014

TWAMPs’ aversion to failure

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March 27, 2014

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This month I was turned down for three possible summer jobs, I lost two soccer games, and I bombed an exam. Pair all of that with the daily struggles of any student at the College of William and Mary, and I’m sure you can imagine this has not been a very warm spring welcome for me (no weather pun intended).

What I’ve learned from this month so far is that failure sucks. I fear it, I hate it, I do everything I can to avoid it, and still it’s always there, seemingly insurmountable and waiting for me to capitulate. The worst part about failure is that it’s resilient: There’s no once-and-done mentality here. You can fail and fail and fail until you finally throw your hands up and say you give up, and even then there’s always something down the line waiting to be screwed up. It’s utterly inescapable.

The other worst part about failure — actually, I think it’s fair to say all parts of failure are the worst parts — is that it’s a psychological cycle. The fear of failure alone, even if it’s totally irrational, can be enough to make you fail, and failure itself only exacerbates that fear. Then there’s nowhere left to go but into a downward spiral. This is the paradox of failure: As human beings, we have inherent flaws that cause us to fail, but in the same vein we have an innate aversion to failure.

We have such an aversion to failure that we do anything possible to avoid it, even if in reality we’re only hurting ourselves. We are so afraid of not finding jobs that we spread ourselves too thin to build our resumes. We sacrifice basic human functions like sleeping and eating so we can dedicate our time to getting an A on that project.

Sometimes these things are necessary, but when they become habitual only to avoid what we perceive as failure, then in actuality we have learned nothing but bad habits and how to sustain them. So where do we go from here?

Well, we can start by realizing that failure is a necessity. It won’t suddenly bring the sun out from behind the clouds and make all the woodland creatures sing and dance with you after you royally fail your finals, but it will give you a reason to move on. Failure is essential to growth and experience.

We fundamentally learn from our mistakes and from the mistakes of the people around us. This is not new to anyone; we’ve been told this for nearly our entire lives. The problem is that we forget it 99 percent of the time because we live in a bubble of perception and comparison.

For example, the College was recently ranked first in a list of public schools with the smartest students. That’s great, but it also furthers our perception that everyone around us is succeeding, and gradually inculcates our aversion to failure. No one wants to be left out of the group, and no one wants to fail. The same logic can be applied to grades; grades are only perceptions of success.

Here at the College, a failed exam can range from an F to an A depending on each individual’s perception of failure. It’s not easy to accept a C in college when you had all As in high school. I’m not saying that sometimes these perceptions aren’t completely accurate because yes, an F is an actual failure, but sometimes the lines might not be so clear-cut.

My point is that sometimes failure is utterly subjective and rooted in perceptions that we calculate seemingly subconsciously. We forget the importance of failing because we refuse to perceive failure as anything but defeat. Failure is an opportunity. We cannot know the difference

Email Kaitlan Shaub at kcshaub@email.wm.edu.

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Kaitlan Shaub

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