Yuan: Fail Fast, Fail Often

by Ziqin Yuan | 9/28/15 6:50pm

I am currently searching for a winter term internship — if you have any ideas, shoot them my way! — and I am terrified. As a sophomore just a few months removed from freshman year, I still do not feel old or wise enough to know enough of what I am doing to get a legitimate internship. As the time crunch really sets in, I have spent the last week researching start-up after start-up — my browser has no fewer than 15 tabs open at any given time, and my search history is full of phrases like “winter internship NYC.”

But as I reviewed each of my tabs, I would psych myself out of applying to them and then close the tabs. I gave myself very persuasive reasons for not applying to each — this one did not fit my vision of what I want to do in the future, that one was too advanced for my current skill level and another one did not have enough prestige. As I kept on looking through job listings, however, I realized that my difficulty in finding companies to reach out to did not stem from a lack of interest — but rather, a fear that I would not get a job offer. In the end, I was afraid to fail.

In her May 2010 column entitled, “Learning to Fail,” Emily Johnson ’12 argued that Dartmouth needs to encourage students to fail and to figure out a way to normalize failure in campus culture. I want to build on and modify her idea — failing is necessary to succeed, but instead of relying on the College to teach us how to fail, we need to look within ourselves and push ourselves to take more risks. Fears of failing are understandable, and some studies have even indicated that the brain processes social rejection similarly to physical pain. Yet shielding yourself from rejection is not the answer — you can only reach your full potential by seeking opportunities, even ones that might not work out.

Students here need to fail — and the sooner, the better. Once we all graduate and enter the “real world” it will become increasingly more difficult to recover from failures. We might encounter failure when we do not quite match the expectations of a boss, a client at work or a significant other. Failing can teach us why exactly we fell short of those expectations. Thus, a failure can reveal the specific steps we need to take to improve. Each failed attempt can teach a new lesson, and with greater failure comes the chance to acquire greater wisdom.

Failing now will also allow us to learn how to deal with disappointment, which is unavoidable in life. I have been afraid to fail, so I have refrained from applying to many incredible internships. Many students are afraid of failure — academic, social or both — and decline to reach out to others for fear of rejection. A friend of mine and I recently discussed how people form friendships. To an extent, friendships are built upon common interests. But even two people with identical interests can live parallel lives without ever interacting. To grow closer with others, you have to be willing to open up to acquaintances, even with the risk that they will reject you. In other words, you must be willing to fail. While the idea that you need to be willing to fail to make friends may seem hyperbolic, social anxieties can really arise at any moment. And while limiting yourself to the familiar and playing it safe might get you some modest success — and you may never fail — you will be left behind by those who take risks.

To get into Dartmouth, most of us were near — if not at — the top of our class. But now that we are here, we have to grapple with failure, usually in classes and club auditions. If I find a course too challenging, it is tempting to avoid similar courses in the future rather than try harder. If an a cappella group rejects me, I might decide to stop trying out for selective groups. We all try to minimize situations where we might fail when we should be actively seeking them, but comfort and safety cannot teach us to learn and grow the same way that our successes and failures do. It is vital to becoming a complex, mature person that one learns to fail.