For someone who works at a competitive university, I spend a lot of time speaking with my students about failure. Failure, to these students who are accustomed to success, may mean a lower grade than expected, not graduating with honors, a need to adjust their graduation date, stepping away from a major (maybe the one their parents pressured them into) or, as the grades from the fall semester have just come in, an actual failing grade.
“I’ve never failed anything before,” they lament as they sit in my office, struggling to find the words to convey their shock and disappointment in themselves.
But I can’t merely tell them, “We all fail sometimes,” or offer some list of famous people who failed numerous times before they succeeded. Our students need real reassurance that they’re not doomed. Because at that moment, the failure is enormous and all-consuming.
They don’t have the perspective yet, but I do. I have a list of failures ready to share: a calculus grade in college that sank my GPA, the publication rejections and the dozens of jobs I applied to but never heard back from, and so do all of my colleagues. In theory, we didn’t get to this point in our careers despite our failures, but because we learned how to overcome these setbacks and reframe our approach to confronting these challenges. “Yeah, but what can I do now?” they ask. They see this moment as insurmountable.
“You aren’t going to know this for a bit, but someday this moment will shrink,” I reassure them. I never say it to minimize their disappointment and fears, because I remember that all-consuming feeling of dread and the sense that it would never go away.
One student emailed me this morning asking for guidance about how to get past this moment of failure. I wish I could share this with more of my students:
There's so much emphasis on grades here, but the bigger prize is finishing.
I say this because I have seen so many students struggle over a fraction of a GPA difference, or what one test or paper will mean for their future. The bigger picture is that you finish, earn your degree and do it standing on two feet. I want you to be able to spend your time here not having beaten yourself up over every single thing. I say this in part because that mentality defined a lot of my college experience, and I don’t want it to do the same for yours.
I can tell you about the many mistakes I made in college and graduate school and I just want to say that I am not defined by any one of those mistakes, nor did those grades haunt me, as I certainly feared in the moment. Those tough moments passed, even though they seemed to stretch on endlessly. Similarly, you will get through these hard parts too. And the moment will shrink.
So if you’re stuck on this failure, I get it. But this moment will shrink—I promise.
Vanessa Corcoran is an advising dean in the College of Arts and Sciences at Georgetown University. Her memoir, It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint: My Road to the Marathon and Ph.D., is available here. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Pat, and their daughter, Lucy. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @VRCinDC.