Rethinking overthinking failure

“I saw your resume, and it made me want to cry — I feel like I don’t do anything,” says a student at a computer with two empty Red Bull cans beside her. “I am going to be living in Earl Gregg Swem Library today,” says a friend skipping lunch because she didn’t think she had time to eat.

These are all things I have observed or heard on campus during this week alone. And they remind me that the culture of stress at the College of William and Mary is a real phenomenon.

Here at the College, I have encountered some of the most overachieving, highly driven individuals that I have ever met. They are no strangers to working hard, losing sleep, and striving for impeccable GPAs.

The emphasis we put on getting good grades and being involved in extracurricular activities during our college years is certainly understandable. Academic success and community engagement are key components that demonstrate an individual’s qualifications for career and educational opportunities both during and after college.

Yet I wonder sometimes if we put so much pressure on ourselves to attain excellent grades and to be involved in activities and organizations that we lose something truly invaluable: a sense of perspective.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of As and think that being involved in activities is incredibly rewarding. I just feel that students at the College create such unrealistic expectations for themselves that meeting them becomes detrimental to their health and well-being. We fear failure so much that we sometimes become obsessed with avoiding it, prioritizing it above all else: above eating regularly, sleeping, cultivating relationships, and taking time to truly experience the joys of the College.

The Student Assembly recently released a wonderful video about failure. The resounding message is that failure happens to everyone. It is important to remember, however, that these instances of failure do not define you. Failing at a particular task does not make you a failure.

No matter what grade you received on that geology exam, or how badly you butchered your Japanese oral test, you were selected to be a part of the College because you are an extraordinary person in your own right. You should not compare your achievements to those of anyone else here. While I have often felt inadequate after hearing about my friends’s incredible accomplishments, I try to be humbled and inspired by them rather than discouraged. The College is an incredible place because we each have our own set of talents and passions. You have achieved impressive things, and you have a unique variety of skills and interests that enrich our community.

And you do not have to be involved in a million different activities to have a real impact. We often think we must “do it all” to be considered successful, but as a notorious over-committer myself, I greatly admire students who are involved in one or two activities that they can dedicate themselves to wholeheartedly.

I encourage you to maintain a sense of perspective and to reach out to friends that may have forgotten how truly impressive they are. If you have made it this far, I am betting your future will be full of continued successes.

Exams are important, but do not let them consume your sense of self. One grade will not determine your entire future, and you are so much richer in character than your transcript or resume could ever indicate. Being a college student is a short-lived opportunity; treasure the midnight Wawa runs, the conversations that run into the wee hours of the morning, and time spent sitting on the dock of Lake Matoaka with a dear friend. After graduation, when you have settled into a career you love, these memories will bring you more lasting joy than any grade ever could.

Email Andrea Aron-Schiavone at


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