Students learn resilience, techniques for overcoming, acknowledging failure

Stanford-inspired Resilience Project takes off on Grounds


Students from the Resilience Project held a lemonade stand earlier this year. They encouraged students to turn their failures, or "lemons" into "lemonade."

Courtesy The Resilience Project

In the fall of 2016, in the halls of New Cabell, an idea was born. It started with the notion of acknowledging failure and changing the dialogue to view personal failures not as setbacks, but as inevitable elements of a successful life. 

This idea inspired students to bring the Resilience Project to the University in February 2016. The project, started at Stanford University, aims to reshape student attitudes toward academic, extracurricular and social failure and help students navigate the competitive culture that permeates colleges across the country.

The project’s origins

Last year, Tim Davis, who serves as the executive director for Student Resilience and Leadership at the Career Center, taught a COLA course called “The Resilient Leader.”

The class focused on teaching students how to develop strategies for resilience in wake of failures and setbacks throughout their time at the University. In one of the last lectures of the course, Davis presented work from Stanford Psychology Prof. Carol Dweck. Dweck’s research aimed to highlight the fact that even the most high-achieving students can have nonlinear paths to success. Dweck’s pivotal research in psychology inspired the formation of the Stanford Resilience Project, the organization around which the University project is based. 

Here, the project incorporates insights from psychology to inspire a growth mindset and willingness to take on challenges and risks.

“The more willing students are to challenge themselves in areas that they wouldn’t have been willing to push themselves in, the more new connections they form in their brain — long-term, structural changes at the neural level — and that will make them smarter or more adept in the future,” Davis said. “So there’s an incentive to take a class where I get a C or a B or where because I know my I’m gaining these emotional resilience skills and my brain’s getting smarter.”

The project’s initiatives

The Resilience Project’s largest initiative so far has been the collection of “failure resumes” to acknowledge setbacks from which individuals can learn and grow. A failure resume is the opposite of a professional resume — it is all of the accomplishments one didn’t achieve, the skills one doesn’t possess and the awards one didn’t attain.

Each of the student board members, as well as multiple faculty members, have composed failure resumes that are featured on the Resilience Project website. Incoming University President James E. Ryan, Senior Lawn Resident Malcolm Stewart and Dean of Students Allen Groves have all recently submitted failure resumes. 

The Resilience Project is in the process of working with Lawn residents to compose failure resumes to post on their doors. 

Zach Estess, a second-year College student involved with the Resilience Project, said expanding the initiative to include student leaders is particularly meaningful because of the prestigious status they hold on Grounds as models at the University.

“You see these student leaders in The Cav Daily all the time, or you see them around Grounds, leading meetings or projects and sometimes students wonder, ‘These people are perfect, how do they get to that point?’” Estess said. 

On Oct. 27, the Resilience Project held a free lemonade stand outside of Newcomb, with the theme “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” At the event, Resilience Project members handed out slips of paper with tips and quotes, and had students write down recent personal failures on sticky notes and post them on posterboard on a wall. 

The wall was rife with academic setbacks, as well as extracurricular failures — including a young woman who was rejected from the University Guide Service five times — and social setbacks, like rejection during Greek rush. 

What is resilience at the University? 

The primary aim of the Resilience Project is to spark a cultural change on Grounds by starting difficult conversations about failure and growth. The project seeks to encourage openness in engaging with setbacks.

“Our philosophy is that failure is not often talked about, especially at U.Va. with the culture of competition,” Estess said. “It’s often about, ‘This is how I’m successful’ and we think that people are afraid to, one, share it and talk about it, and, two, accept failure as a normal thing.” 

Estess and other members of the group said they hope that students will be inspired by hearing how professors and their peers have moved past failures in their pasts. 

The Resilience Project is geared toward addressing the competitiveness that characterizes the academic, social and extracurricular realms of the University.

“There’s oftentimes a picture of a perfect U.Va. student who has straight As and belongs to all the most prestigious organizations,” Katherine Mead, a second-year College student and member of the Resilience Project, said. “With this project, we really wanted to shatter that illusion and show that everyone experiences some failure and rejection if they’re challenging themselves and how failure is really an integral part of a rigorous education.”

The project particularly appeals to first-year students, who might most feel the weight of the competitive pressure characteristic of the atmosphere here.

“Coming from high school, you’re in that mindset, ‘I need to get into college,’ and you’re doing everything you possibly can to get into college and you’re trying to get the best grades and be involved in everything,” Estess said. “When you get to U.Va., you’re in that high achieving mindset, and you’re with a bunch of high-achievers, and you feel this sense of insecurity, like you’re surrounded by people who were first in their class or president of every club.”

Social rejection is an especially important part of the project for founding member Sarah Woolf, a second-year College student, who says that sort of rejection often feels very personal when it shouldn’t. The Resilience Project wants to make an impact on the competitive nature of Greek life. 

“I think that there’s competitiveness in extracurriculars ... in sororities, in fraternities, in Greek Life, in leadership positions — it’s everywhere,” Woolf said. “In many ways, that’s a good thing but I think, maybe even more important than not talking about academic rejection is not discussing social rejection.”

The future of the project

The project inspired Davis to create the course “Resilient Leadership for Teams.” The class, which debuted in the Batten School this semester, is based around skills for team leadership and cooperation, and will be taught in future semesters. 

Mead said Davis’ class introduces a new approach to leadership.

“It’s really focusing on the new type of leader, which is not the caricature we have of a big talker, big figure who oversees a rigid hierarchy of people,” Mead said. “It’s about what our society is moving towards — team-based leaders — and about learning how to cooperate with a group and the different kinds of leaders that work most effectively in different situations.” 

Moving forward, the Resilience Project will host a dorm workshop in first-year dorms to spread techniques of resiliency to first-year student. At this workshop, Davis — as well as student members of the project — will present research on the growth mindset and describe tangible tools for resilience that students can employ during their four years at the University.

“[I am an] RA in first-year dorms, and I’ve especially seen on my hall that failure has been commonplace,” Estess said. “We hope to ... provide the tangible tools that people can use to be resilient. Not just broad ideas, like ‘You need to be resilient,’ but physical actions that they can do to actually be resilient when they fail so that they have something when they fail to get them through that process.”

In the future, the Resilience Project hopes to put on a TED talk-style “U.Va., I Screwed Up” event in the Old Cabell auditorium, similar to that held at Stanford. 

Ultimately, the Resilience Project hopes to become institutionalized at the University, not just as another CIO or student group, but as something that students learn about at orientation or Welcome Week. The Resilience Project hopes to spark dialogue about failure and resilience from the moment students step onto Grounds. 

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