The importance of embracing failure

College is a microcosm of the real world. While students are taking exams and accumulating knowledge about their respective fields of study, they are also doing just as much learning outside the classroom. From adapting to living with roommates to dealing with the stress of midterm season, college campuses are a crossroads where students acquire the skills needed to survive and succeed on their own in the real world. 

USC’s dwindling acceptance rate has created a hypercompetitive academic atmosphere in which self-motivated students often feel pitted against each other for grades, spots in clubs and student organizations and coveted internships and research positions. Rejection is inevitable, and the one-sided projections of others’ lives via social media apps often add to the pressure and anxiety of the competitive climate, leaving students feeling like they should constantly be doing more to keep up. Not to mention, students are responsible for paying up to $77,000 a year for tuition, room and board — only heightening the pressure students feel to constantly be at their best, accumulating awards and extracurricular activities to “justify” their pricey ticket of admission or give them the best chance at earning scholarships.  

The pressure to be perfect on an elite college campus translates into increased stress levels and declining mental health. The words “impostor syndrome” are often brought up jokingly in conversation, but it’s something that’s felt by more students than who care to admit it. Many students have been perfectionists their entire lives, and from early on, college is a constant stream of adversity and adaptation.

Marshall School of Business professors constantly reiterate that failure is an essential part of the entrepreneurial model. Understanding that failing is a crucial part of the ideation process helps creatives and entrepreneurs embrace their failure; internalizing lessons and constructive criticism that will help them shape their next iteration or attempt. The concept of “failing fast” allows innovators to rapidly cycle through several ideas with little regard for the ones that didn’t work, facilitating experimentation, creativity and ultimately, progress. 

Academic professionals are attempting to introduce this mindset of positive and neutral failures beyond business classes at colleges around the country, creating programs and campaigns that normalize failure. Smith College has created a “Failing Well” initiative, opening up a discourse on failure by offering workshops about impostor syndrome, perfectionism and academic achievement as a whole. Similarly, the Stanford Resilience Project attempts to “normalize setbacks and help students reflect on and learn from their failures” through dorm programming, student panels, workshops and campus-wide performance events all about the importance of acknowledging failure and learning how to move forward. 

This is perhaps easier said than done. Students should be kinder to themselves — encountering failure is inevitable, but they have complete control over the mindset they choose to approach it with. Constant comparison with others in classes or online does nothing to boost self-esteem or self-confidence. At the end of the day, all one can do is be the best version of themselves that one can be, regardless of the grade one ends up with or the accolades one receives.

A bad midterm grade, botched internship interview, club rejection or failed relationship is ultimately not the end of the world; life itself is a constantly-evolving opportunity for self-growth and exploration. Getting rejected once doesn’t necessarily mean students should quit entirely and refocus their attention. It’s simply a numbers game — the more times that students put themselves in unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations and experience rejection, the more unfazed they will be.  As Smith College’s leadership development specialist Rachel Simmons notes, “failure is not a bug of learning, it’s the feature.”

USC is home to students and professors who have amassed astounding academic achievements, created groundbreaking inventions and are leaders in their field. Surrounded by such extraordinary ambition, it can be easy to feel intimidated and underachieving, but students should take inspiration from the opportunities and people around them. None of these accomplishments could have come without many stumbling blocks, rejections, trial and error and most importantly, persistence. 

Especially in college, when things are always changing so quickly, there should be no shame in not constantly performing your best. USC cultivates a competitive academic culture, but that’s only one side of the story  — learning how to fall, and more importantly, pick yourself back up, is a skill that’s essential to all parts of life. Accepting failure doesn’t mean you’ve admitted defeat — it means you’ve put yourself out of your comfort zone and learned something new. Students need to alter their mindset. Failing is an unavoidable yet essential part of both their curriculum as college students and as humans.