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Failing to succeed

Try conveying the splendor of spring at Stanford to friends outside the Farm. It’s no easy task. For as our Cal colleagues to the north hunker down for finals and our peers to the east button up their trench coats, the average Stanfordian seems a little less stressed and a little more tan as we imbibe in the sweet sounds of Frost, the excesses of a final Linner and the theatrical genius that was this weekend’s opening of “Hairspray.”

Alongside spring’s splendor, however, lies something that our campus is even worse at conveying: failure. Many of us will soon find failure in our inboxes, as we are rejected from jobs and internships. For the fratty among us, failure will come in the absence of a “bid” to frats and sororities; most of Stanford’s would-be Underwoods will fail to amass the necessary votes in ASSU elections next week; and for us romantics, we may fail to find or maintain love as summer draws closer.

For all the failures we face, we are notoriously unwilling to discuss them. And when we do discuss failure, we frame it as though failing is something that must be accepted, but is itself not desirable.

Consider an alternative framing of failure in which we instead assert that failure is a difficult but necessary component of success. In this framing, we might be more willing to accept failure, knowing that it is not only okay to fail, but that it is also an important determinant of success.

My experience as a high schooler in Palo Alto suggests that these differing conceptions of failure—one as an impediment and the other as a necessity—are more than just esoteric questions of framing, but non-trivial nuances in our perception that matter to our livelihood.

In the last decade, Palo Alto has been plagued by a bout of gruesome teen suicides and mental health issues. As recently as last month, students of Henry M. Gunn High School and my alma mater Palo Alto High School (Paly) have tragically ended their lives. The exact cause of these suicides is unknown, although many have speculated that everything from a hyper-competitive academic environment to overbearing parenting, or some combination of the two, is to blame.

The problem with these theories is that they generally don’t hold up to scrutiny. Although endowed with intelligent students, Paly does not rank its students in terms of performance. Paly has no valedictorians, and students do not know their class rank. This is not to suggest that an implicit and perhaps corrosive competitiveness does not exist, but that it seems not to be a function of explicit, unique school policy.

Similarly, while Palo Alto parents certainly push their children to succeed, there is no reason to suspect that this is significantly different than in other parts of the country. Numerous schools from coast to coast have similarly driven parents, even the fabled tiger moms, without the intensity of mental health issues that Palo Alto students exhibit. Perhaps it would serve some Palo Alto parents well to lay off of their kids, but this is certainly not a phenomenon distinct to the school district.

Nonetheless, during my tenure at Paly, I occasionally felt an intense pressure to avoid failure. I sincerely believed that intermediate failure—whether a bad grade on a test or a bad water polo game in the pool—would prevent me from fulfilling my goals of attending an elite college and living a fulfilling life. I often felt I was walking on ice, where one false move or bad grade would sink my prospects, as opposed to seeing mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow.

In talking with friends and fellow Paly graduates, I have learned that my experience was not unique. Even some of my closest friends felt the same, but were similarly unwilling to share their feelings. For some reason, we believed it would not have befit the ethos of the school or our self-perceptions as high-achieving students to admit to each other that we felt on-the-ice, despite our shared sentiment. Failure was the enemy of success, and we all wanted success.

Interestingly, these feelings were not self-evident. It was not until our commencement speaker, California State Senator Joe Simitian, encouraged us to “fail, and fail often,” that I slowly began to realize my previous conception of failure as an obstacle. Later, as I read into the all-too-frequently cited research of Stanford Professor Carol Dweck on growth mindsets, I realized that, perhaps, my fear of failure was not only misplaced, but verifiably corrosive to my well-being.

For all their differences, Stanford and Paly share more in common than we may like to admit. At Stanford, seldom do students convey their fear of failure, although it certainly permeates beneath the surface. While events like “Stanford, I screwed up,” attempt to bring those fears to the surface, many of us remain unconvinced that failure will lead to success, and not to more failure. It is wonderful to see that success is still possible given failure, as Stanford’s Resilience Project has valiantly sought to remind us, but this remains a far leap away from accepting failure as a general necessity of success.

As spring returns to Stanford, we will likely hear sincere debates and discussions about the state of mental health at Stanford. I encourage you to listen intently, and question whether proposed policy proscriptions will help students embrace failure as a necessity. Almost certainly, we will all fail at something this spring—we should hope to do so with smiles on our faces.

Contact AZ Gordon at zelinger ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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