de Guardiola: The Importance of Failure

Although it may be unpleasant, failure is what comes to define us.

by Mercedes de Guardiola | 10/18/16 12:30am

In my past three years at Dartmouth, my absolute favorite moments have been when I’ve failed. Let me explain.

Failure can have many different meanings: doing poorly on a test, failing out of a course, losing friends, getting dumped or disappointing a loved one. Maybe for you, it means something else entirely. Regardless, I see failure as a fact of life that is intrinsically personal and painfully intimate. For me, failure has all of these meanings and many more. Some failures I haven’t yet had to face, and I’m glad for that. But at the same time, my time at Dartmouth wouldn’t be the same — or even as worthwhile — without them.

As college students, we’re often so preoccupied with doing well on a test or being the best at whatever we do that it is easy to forget about the importance of failure. Since we were children, we have been told we absolutely need to go to college because, otherwise, we will be essentially worthless. Many of us have crammed extracurriculars into our lives at every waking second because if we don’t go to that one intermural underwater basket-weaving class, we’re absolutely, no way, ever going to get anywhere in life. Gone are the days when merely getting a Dartmouth degree would be enough to earn a good job — now, you need to have a 4.0 GPA and citations in every class, even if everyone else has them, too. Most of the time, being number one feels like the only way we’re ever going to go on to anything.

Some have called our generation narcissists or babies, an assessment that I don’t entirely agree with. Unlike the generations that have come before us, we are entering the workforce with the student loan debt crisis breathing down our necks, questioning whether there are even jobs for us at all. On top of this, graduates will enter a tougher job market than before the economic crash in 2008. Meanwhile, though the technological breakthroughs of the past century have made life easier, they have also led to increased job automation and outsourcing. The upcoming presidential election likewise does not bode well; who knows where the United States will be after the votes are tallied next month? There’s a sense of despair in this country and around the world as the challenges that face us grow.

Given this mess, it’s not surprising that mental health issues are increasing across colleges nationally. It’s estimated that this generation is more stressed and anxious than any other, and colleges are overwhelmed by the demand for mental health services on their campuses. According to a survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, for instance, 95 percent of college counseling center directors surveyed said the number of students with significant psychological problems is a growing concern in their center or on campus. In Hanover, New Hampshire, we’re facing the same issue: it can take nearly a month to see someone at Dick’s House or one of the few private practitioners in town.

I believe that one of the main reasons for the rise in mental health issues is the mindset that college is the only way to succeed in life and show your value. To come back to my original point, it’s become so ingrained in us that we have to succeed — a success that is often, if not always, contingent on college — that we don’t even consider failure an option. And ultimately, it’s a mindset that sets us all up for failure.

We are all going to fail in life sometimes. We’re going to fail regardless of how you define it, and we’re all going to feel sad, lonely, miserable and alone at some point in our lives because of it. But after that moment arrives, we have to either pick ourselves back up or just sit down in the proverbial dirt and never get up again. That is the lesson we need to let ourselves learn at college: how to fail.

Why do I consider that lesson an essential part of some of my best moments at Dartmouth? Because when we fail here, we’re lucky enough to have an incredible support system that helps us get back up. When I’ve failed — whether it be the moment I realized I was probably going to fail a class and had a complete breakdown in my advisor’s office, or the time I was cheated on and had to find out from someone else, and everything in between — I’ve found friends and support that I never knew were there. Even if it doesn’t feel like it, people here want you to succeed. You will not always find such support out in the real world, or even at other colleges.

Our close community, from the students to the faculty, makes Dartmouth truly special, and finding that support has made my time here extraordinary. It can be absolutely terrifying to try to find support here, and sometimes it can feel like you’re alone. But if you do try to reach out, you will eventually find someone here that will help you get back up, whether it’s a friend, an advisor or even that teacher you only took one class with.

Failure may be inevitable, but it does make us better people. It helps us realize what’s really important in life. Moreover, it shows us that what we thought mattered the most may not matter that much at all. In my time here, I’ve learned that there isn’t one path for everyone, and that the best path for some may not include college at all. I’m not advocating for constant failure — we’re all incredibly lucky to be here and we shouldn’t waste the opportunity. But at the same time, Dartmouth is a place where you can fail and still get back up. Dartmouth offers a myriad of opportunities to its students, and, as odd as it may sound, failure is one of them.

So take the time, while we’re still at college and not yet in the real world, to practice falling down: it’s the only way to ever learn to get back up. And trust me — getting back up does get easier.