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The Dartmouth
June 23, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

de Wolff: Seek Discomfort

Learning how to deal with failure is one of the most valuable lessons to learn at Dartmouth.

This article is featured in the 2023 Freshman special issue.

Welcome, Class of 2027! If you look through Freshman special issues from past years, you will encounter many articles exhorting freshmen to try new things, stay true to themselves and other common platitudes. These are all well worth remembering as you forge your identity here. But if you only pursue new opportunities and experiences that fall within your comfort zone, you will graduate without discovering what you are truly capable of accomplishing. If you want to make the most of your precious time here, you must make failure your friend. Your admission to Dartmouth shows you know how to succeed. Now begins the most important part of your education: learning how to fail.

Winning admission to an Ivy League school has become even more difficult recently, with Dartmouth’s acceptance rate sitting at 6%, according to its admissions website. The process of compiling a suitably outstanding application can foster an unhealthy attitude toward one’s perceived shortcomings. Weaknesses and failures become something you minimize or hide, not embrace. This is not a sustainable approach. When you inevitably fail during your time here, you will have to determine how to respond in an appropriate manner.

Your academic journey presents the most conspicuous opportunities for growth. Thanks to our liberal arts identity, Dartmouth students have access to an immensely rich and varied curriculum. Do not simply take the easy way out when fulfilling your distributive requirements. It is an insult to your own tremendous academic capabilities to think you cannot do well in a class where an A is not handed to you.

Push yourself to learn about subjects that do not come easily. Take classes that unnerve you. In the process, you may fall short of your previous academic success. But you will come away with a better appreciation of your ability to adapt to uncertainty and your resilience in the face of rejection.

Failure doesn’t always come from trying new things. Defeat can come in familiar arenas. You may receive a less-than-stellar grade in a subject you thought you understood. You might even change your major because the path you envisioned for yourself is just not in the cards. After all, all the courses in the two most popular major departments at Dartmouth, economics and government, have B+ medians.

Ultimately, a poor grade does not define you. The sooner you learn this, the better. Instead, treat your grades as a chance to examine where your study habits or time management could use some improvement. Do not allow a grade to undermine your self-confidence or your drive to succeed. Even former College President Phil Hanlon got mostly Bs and Cs his first year here, before going on to get a Ph.D. from California Institute of Technology and returning to lead his alma mater.

Your nascent extracurricular and social lives present their own challenges. Auditions for various a capella and improv comedy groups can be surprisingly competitive, even for those with prior experience. Scores of talented athletes flock to various club sports tryouts every year, only to be turned away due to limited roster spots. This is all part and parcel of freshman year.

Even if you are lucky enough to join that coveted team or club, that is no guarantee your experience will be perfect. You may get injured, botch a presentation, lose a game or let your group down on a crucial project. Your upperclassmen peers have been there before and will mentor you as you recover and learn from your mistakes. All too soon, it will be your turn to return the favor as a new crop of freshmen continue this cycle.  

After you’ve selected a rigorous course load and joined innumerable clubs, it’s possible that something has to give. Biting off more than you can chew is a common occurrence at Dartmouth. The competitive pressure to succeed here is enormous, but you can’t do it all. Sometimes, it’s best to take a step back and focus your energy on a select few ventures. This is not a failure, but rather a strategic pivot that acknowledges the limits of being human. Knowing your limits is another important lesson that you may have to learn the hard way. In the long run, however, this knowledge will enable you to pursue your goals more efficiently and strategically.

For now, know that finding your people takes time, and occasionally, trial and error as well. You may find friends for life on your very first day on campus, but you also may find yourself still searching as the weeks elapse. Some friendships and relationships may even fail to take root — some spectacularly so. But you’ll learn something about yourself, and what you look for in a friend, from these failures as well.

Even the most confident, self-assured upperclassman will admit they still don’t have everything figured out. In your later years here, you will join the hunt for prized internships and ever-elusive jobs. Here, the cycle repeats itself. Many qualified students are refused, and only a select few receive an offer. Even this is no guarantee of a fulfilling or desirable career. The student who refuses to let these short-lived rejections define or discourage them will persevere over the one who crumples in the face of adversity.

Too often, it’s temptingly easy to measure yourself against your peers and feel like you’re behind. Many Dartmouth students were at the top of their respective fields back in high school. The adjustment to joining such an impressively accomplished student body can seem harsh at times. But the race of life is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself. Failure is just a temporary setback that is a critical part of becoming the best version of yourself.

During the next four years, you are not alone in this journey. It’s very likely that others have made the same mistakes you have. Older students have traveled this road before you and are more than happy to impart any wisdom they have picked up along the way. Your professors are a valuable source of feedback. Should you feel paralyzed or overwhelmed, Dartmouth’s mental health infrastructure, which includes counseling appointments as well as 24-hour call support, is available as another potential resource.

Nothing in this article should dissuade you from taking an infamous intro course, or any unfamiliar course with an intimidating median grade; the Non-Recording Option — which enables you to take a class without the grade appearing on your transcript — is your friend in such instances. Go out on a limb and audition for a capella groups despite not being able to carry a tune. Try out for a club sport you’ve never played before. Send a flitz to someone you hardly know. Who knows where things might lead? Either you’re no worse off than before, or you discover new abilities, new opportunities and new avenues for success.

You may find that your coursework is a cakewalk or that you are accepted by every club, group and job you desire. It is far more likely, however, that you find yourself flummoxed in the next four years. In that case, remember former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s advice about the man in the arena: “Fail while daring greatly, and your place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.

Thomas de Wolff

Thomas de Wolff '24 is from St. Louis, Missouri, and is majoring in History and French. He currently serves as opinion editor and as a member of the Editorial Board, and has written for the opinion section in the past. Outside of The Dartmouth, Thomas enjoys playing guitar, reading, and learning to juggle.