On Failure

Our office had a meeting yesterday and we were discussing some of the conversations we have had at New Student Receptions this year.  The topic of failure came up, and it bears mentioning here.

The very word “failure” makes a lot of us tense and makes us feel bad about ourselves.  We are taught – in so many ways – that we must succeed, should succeed, should feel bad when we fail.  The reality is that we all know intellectually that there will be failures in our lives: bad grades, job issues, relationship problems, you name it.  We also know intellectually that by failing we learn things.  They may be painful lessons, but we learn and we get better from it.

As adults and parents, we hopefully have the emotional capacity to understand failure and to look at it objectively, and while it may sting, we presumably have built the resilience to handle it as gracefully as possible.  Your students – particularly those entering as first-years – may not yet have the emotional maturity to understand that failures will happen, and it does not mean THEY are failures, it just means they failed at a specific task.

One of the lessons your students learn outside the classroom at Wake Forest is how to handle failures.  For many of our students who arrive on campus their first year as part of the creme de la creme of their high school, it is a sudden and profound shock to be surrounded by people who are as smart – or smarter – than they are.  Their first failure could be on a test or paper or midterm exam, and it might rattle them.  It could be a social situation – not getting a leadership position in a group they belong to, not getting into the sorority or fraternity they wanted, etc.   For students who have always done well on all fronts – socially, academically, interpersonally – the first taste of difficulty can be like a bucket of water to the face.  Shocking.

My message to parents and families is to take heart.  College is a great, safe environment to experience first failures.  This is a soft place to land when times are tough – surrounded by friends, RAs, resources of all kinds (both academic and personal).  And when the time comes that your student calls/texts/IMs you about X or Y failure, the temptation may be great to do whatever you have to do to make your student feel better.  I am a mom, I get it.  But resist that temptation.

When you fix a problem (or provide a fantastic consolation prize/diversion to take your student’s mind off it), your student may not have access to the full experience of that failure – and the resulting growth that follows.  I will quote a good friend from our Counseling Center who reminds me that we need to learn to “sit with discomfort.”  In other words, don’t push all the bad feelings out as soon as you feel them.  There is something to be learned from them, and each of us might experience it differently.  Some might feel “This stinks – I don’t like being uncomfortable” or “I feel bad about myself” or “I resolve to do better next time.”  Hopefully our students also come to feel “I felt bad, but it didn’t crush me” – and the next time there is a failure, they will know the sun will still rise the next morning and they will be able to handle the failure.

When you let your student experience that discomfort on his or her own, you help your student build resilience, which is a skill he or she will need from here to the end of time.  We all need to be able to process bad feelings and disappointment and bounce back.

So even as your student might sit with discomfort, I would urge you to sit with it too.  As parents, we want to spare our children pain and suffering.  But your students will grow through finding the answers and processing those emotions on their own, and you will help them learn that they are capable people, which helps build their self-confidence.  Ironically, the unintended message that can be sent when well-meaning and loving parents “fix” their student’s problem for them can be “my parents don’t think I am capable of fixing this – maybe they are right” (of course, if it were a serious serious issue that requires intervening, you should.)

Why am I telling you all this now?  Summer is a great time to talk to your student and have meaningful adult conversations.  Talk about failures you have experienced – they may have no idea you ever struggled, or how you got out of those situations.  Talk about what you learned.  Tell them that they will fail too, and it is OK, natural, normal.  And tell them that when those times come, you trust them to find the best path forward.  Remind them of the old maxim: “Fall down seven times.  Get up eight.”

Categories: campus life