Rutgers-Camden Blog

Redefining Failure

The Spring 2023 semester has just wrapped up. Maybe you had a great semester; if so, congratulations! Maybe you had a less-than-great semester; if so, congratulations! Have I confused you? Let me explain. In addition to my role in the division of student success, I’m a mom. I read to my children all the time, and one of our favorites is a book titled She’s Got This written by Olympian Laurie Hernandez. In it, the little girl learning gymnastics wants to quit after a big fall scares her. Her mother, instead, takes the family out for ice cream to celebrate the fall. She explains that falling and failing is all part of succeeding. Ok, I can see that this version of the message may be too oversimplified (hey, it works for my kindergartner!), so let’s take a deeper look.

If we’re going to talk about failure, the thing that feels scary and shameful, perhaps we should begin by exploring the opposite end of the spectrum – success. Success is the thing we’re all striving for here, right? But what is it exactly, and how will you know when you’ve achieved it? Well, if you ask researchers, you may not! Turns out, we’re not very good at determining what will make us happy or evaluating our own success. In notable studies, people tend to overestimate what will make them happy, including higher salaries or how they’ll feel when they reach a pivotal point in their career, like achieving tenure as professors. This tendency to overestimate carries over when we’re asked to predict potential failures, too. For example, in breakups, people predicted they would feel sadder for longer than they actually did, and student drivers predicted they would be “devastated” if they failed the driving exam, but for those who did, those feelings dissipated more quickly than predicted. According to psychologist Dan Gilbert, we are all equipped with cognitive mechanisms that minimize our experiences of negative affect, something he calls “the psychological immune system.” So, if you’re reflecting on your most recent semester and thinking you would have been happier about your successes or more disappointed about your struggles, sounds like you’re having a pretty typical experience.

So what is it about failure that scares us and elicits feelings of shame? Well, for one, our ego isn’t built for failure. When our ego is threatened, our motivation to learn is undermined, and researchers have found that this can lead to missed opportunities to learn from the situation. How exactly can we get comfortable enough with failure to be able to glean these valuable lessons? As unconventional as it may sound, practice may be just what we all need, and companies and educators have begun to embrace this notion and put it into practice (pun intended). Students attending Smith College in Massachusetts have the opportunity to enroll in “Failing Well,” a course designed to give students tools for rethinking failures and managing achievement-related pressures, while both the University of Toronto and Stanford University have designed workshops, coaching and other events around the theme of “Failure.” In fact, Rutgers-Camden has been promoting these conversations, too! Since 2019, the Honors College has hosted faculty panels, alumni speaker events, and lunch workshops urging members of our community to openly share their “failures” in the hope it will encourage students to be more adventurous as undergraduates and as they think about their lives.

You might not think that risk-taking, failure, and successful business models all go hand-in-hand, but in fact, some of the most well-known companies, including Netflix, Coca-Cola, Domino’s, and Amazon, are run by CEOs who believe in the fundamental need for failure as you experiment and create new products. These leaders have created a company culture that not only embraces failures but encourages it as part of the creative and growth processes. Becoming comfortable with failure is also the premise of Jia Jiang’s book “Rejection Proof: How I Beat Fear and Became Invincible Through 100 Days of Rejection.” In it, Jiang makes requests that he knew were guaranteed to fail to expose himself to and get comfortable with rejection. In his TED Talk, which has been viewed nearly 1 million times, Jiang explains that rejection and failure live in a place of fear, but the more practiced we become with the things that scare us, the less scary they become.

So what can you do to start accepting failure and learning from these opportunities? To start, try to embrace the experience. One way to do this is by creating your own “failure resume.” Never heard of a failed resume before? There are countless examples of professionals at every level who have documented and publicly shared the rejections and setbacks that have all contributed to where they are today. Many of these individuals echo the CEOs above, touting failure as simply part of the journey and an opportunity to reflect as much on what is going well as on areas for growth. While failure can be scary, it comes with possibility. This is why author Daniel Pink celebrates the failure resume in his recent book “The Power of Regret,” where he found that more people regret being risk-averse and playing it safe compared to those who took a risk (and sometimes failed).

Near the end of She’s Got This the mother tells her daughter, “Each fall makes you better. Now you have to try again. Maybe you’ll fall, but maybe not. You won’t know unless you try.” We all know falling short of our goals can be scary, and the challenges and difficult decisions facing students today continue to mount.  But we hope you also know that as these challenges and opportunities arise, you are not alone; in good times and bad, we are here for you. So, to the degree that is possible for you, we encourage you to lean into the things that scare you and take advantage of opportunities all around you. Sometimes the outcome will be a success, and other times it won’t, but every time we hope you are learning, growing, and becoming the best version of you.