A first-year and failure

What I had to relearn about making mistakes

Early in my first semester, my friend told me a memorable story about failure.

Sara Blakely, billionaire businesswoman, was giving a speech when she recalled a story from her childhood.

"My dad used to ask my brother and me at the dinner table what we had failed at that week," she recounted. "I can remember coming home from school and saying, 'Dad, I tried out for this and I was horrible!' and he would high-five me and say, 'Way to go!' If I didn't have something that I had failed at, he actually would be disappointed."

In other words, if Blakely hadn’t made a mistake and learned from it, her father would have considered that the true failure.

I needed to hear that story. I had just escaped the meat-grinder that is the college application process, where I’d scrambled frantically to stockpile gleaming resume bullets, sterling letters of recommendation and dazzling personal essays. Entering college, I’d subconsciously maintained this mindset, which manifested in an intense desire to do everything perfectly. In my mad dash, I told myself I had no room to fail.

It wasn’t until I heard Blakely’s anecdote that I began to revisit my attitude towards failure. Instead of beating myself up when I wasn’t a paragon of competence, I began to view my failures not as disasters but as opportunities. I soon started keeping a “failure journal,” jotting notes on my phone whenever I made a mistake and, more importantly, writing ideas on how I could learn from each one.

Entries ranged from the innocuous — “9/27/16: Don’t start your essay the night before it’s due”— to the more important and too-easily forgotten — “11/5/16: Don’t pass up hanging with a friend for something that isn’t nearly as important.”

My little experiment taught me two simple truths that should have been obvious all along. First, I learned not to beat myself up when I made a mistake. Most failures aren’t actually failures, but remarkable ways to grow as a person.

We’ve all heard the adages, their wisdom so overused as to almost be stale. Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” Robert F. Kennedy said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” My friend Nathan said, “Jack, stop asking me for quotes in your stupid column.” The healthiest way to react to failures isn’t to brood — it’s to look at your failures and work on doing better in the future.

Secondly, I learned that an inordinate fear of failure can make us allergic to taking risks. It’s easier to tread the well-worn path, especially when the new, unfamiliar trail might result in the unpleasantness of failure. But the most valuable aspects of my life at U.Va. resulted from little leaps of faith that carried a little bit of risk. If I hadn’t taken those chances — if I hadn’t taken my dope poetry class on a whim, if I hadn’t randomly said hey to a then-stranger in Newcomb who became one of my best friends — my life would be invariably emptier.

I forgot all about these lessons coming into college, but I’m glad I remembered them. And if I’m going to make mistakes, college is the place to do it — nowhere else will I find such a rich support network of friends and resources to help me grow as a result.

Now, I know the true measure of my education isn’t how much I succeed, but how many times I screw up. So, even if I’ve failed to avoid writing a trite and corny column, don’t worry — I’ll kill it on the next one.

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