Experiencing Failure

Failure didn’t fit in my childhood. For Failure’s breadth was bigger than me — “Affected more” than just me. I was chastised, and scolded, and thoroughly taught the wrongs of my actions (or more often, negligence). However, I rarely felt their impact on myself or others. Though my mistakes were my faults, they were not my consequences. In my bubble of a childhood, Failure was utterly unacceptable.

Yet I largely created my own aversion to academic failure. Encouraged by my peers, I assumed intelligence as my identity. Early on, I showed off. I dominated seminar discussions and read books during chemistry lecture. And throughout high-school, perception of my intelligence held up my self-esteem. It was important for me to be at the top — for me to feel smarter, to see solutions no one else did, to be affirmed by classmates and teachers. In twelfth grade, I was in the Plain Dealer, I won a merit scholarship from the Cleveland Cavaliers, I dominated our school awards ceremony. I let it go to my head. To fail now would not just be Failure but a direct threat to my core identity.

Now, I’m a junior. I study Computer Science at Amherst. I regularly don’t intuit the solution the first time. I cannot do the homework without attending class. I regularly ask clarifying questions, instead of questions that challenge the algorithm or take it further. I have literally failed tests. When I got into Amherst, I believed I was more academically prepared than a vast majority of the population. It was another piece that confirmed my spot at the top of the intellectual hierarchy. However, in attending outside computer science events, I have observed many people from different backgrounds who excel more than I do. I work hard and study hard, but sometimes I question whether I am actually smart enough to go into the field.

In some areas, I have found value in finally experiencing failure. I have learned I can fail and pick myself up again. With the help of my friends, I have developed resilience. And in opening myself up to failure, I have tried something new. I have made apps with less than a year of CS experience. I have fought 300 lbs. men (in a controlled environment). I have introduced myself to people I have always secretly admired and had the most wonderful discussions.

But in the academic realm, I still struggle with failure — failure not only to be one of the smartest, but failure to understand the material at all. Developing apps, there are many times when I do not know what I do not know. If I am not smart, then who am I? What am I good at? What makes me different?

Here Failure is shameful, inappropriate, pessimistic, and taboo. “Build yourself back up. Work harder.” And yet removing it from our conscience leaves so many of us drowning. Perhaps failure should be accepted. Perhaps it should be talked about. And perhaps by letting ourselves experience our Failure, we can move on.