Smith College is giving students certificates of “failure” as part of a program called “Failing Well,” which aims to “destigmatize failure.”
As reported by the New York Times, Smith is just one of many highly selective colleges trying to tackle the combination of steadily increasing rates of depression, stress, and anxiety among college students that come coupled with what many perceive as students’ lack of “resiliency,” where setbacks that from the outside seem minor (like a B+ on a single exam), throw them for an emotional loop.
I’m pleased to hear these issues are being addressed head-on. The issue is not new. Psychologist and therapist Madeline Levine identified these trends among high-achieving teenagers over a decade ago in The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. I’ve been writing about student stress and anxiety almost from the moment I appeared on these pages.
As Rachel Simmons, a leadership development specialist who leads the Smith College program on failing well tells the Times, “What we’re trying to teach is that failure is not a bug of learning, it’s the feature.”
Again, total agreement.
And yet, as I read about these programs designed to help students bounce back from failure I can’t help but think we’re missing a big part of the picture. I worry we’re going to fail if our goal is limited to teaching the “life skill” of dealing with failure.
My first concern is that, as reported in the Times, and confirmed by my own experiences with students, when failure is discussed, the failures are almost all defined as failures to perform well in navigating the gauntlet of school.
At the Smith orientation where the “worst failures” were broadcast on a screen as part of the programming, examples included “I failed my first college writing exam,” and “I failed out of college,” the latter from a “popular English professor.”
While failing out of college is no doubt “bad,” the professor’s characterization suggests something deeper may have been going on, “Sophomore year. Flat-out whole semester of F’s on the transcript, bombed out, washed out, flunked out.”
Clearly, the story has a happy ending, as this sophomore-year failure eventually grew to become a popular English professor at Smith College. But couldn’t we see that failure as actually a moment of significant success, the time where that person learned to honor their own view of the world and form a self-concept that directed them towards a future built on freedom, self-determination and agency?
Much of the rhetoric of these failure programs seems to be about how to dust yourself off to get back in the game. But what if the better move is to take a step back and realize you have no interest in the game? Can we really say we’re helping students develop agency if we keep them captive to a system that makes college look like a gauntlet to be run for the sake of some future economic benefit, rather than a place to explore and learn?
In many ways, this looks like “grit” repackaged for higher ed. While stick-to-itiveness is a vital skill as an adult, so is knowing when to quit.
For sure, some of this anxiety is rooted in the particular dynamics of elite institutions. In order to get in, these students have had to balance on a knife’s edge of achievement, fearing (with some good reason), that a single misstep may close off an opportunity at a prosperous future. The authorities hold all of the power of judgment, and students – rightly or wrongly – perceive themselves to be at the mercy of that power.
But as Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Dean at Stanford and author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success writes, the larger problem is not so much building resiliency against challenges, but instead operating inside a world that leaves little room to develop a stable sense of self.
Put plainly, young people occupying these elite spaces don’t have the room to figure out what they want, and without that room, they feel trapped in a game not necessarily of their choosing. Rather than merely teaching them how to get up off the ground inside that game, our lessons in failure should be helping students figure out when it’s time to quit the game and choose a different one.
To some degree, this particular conversation about resiliency is unique to elite, highly selective schools. At my very solid, but more pedestrian public institution, where many students are working at full-time or close to full-time jobs while going to school, lack of resiliency isn’t really an option.
Rather than helping students learn to navigate the apparently emotionally destructive atmosphere of their elite institutions where even the amount of one’s stress is a competitive endeavor, perhaps they could take some steps to move away from an ethos built on competition.
As just one example, elite colleges could go to a lottery system for admissions, limiting the number of criteria to be submitted and then choosing at random from the qualified applicants. All that striving in high school to build a bulletproof resume – which still may not be sufficient – can be ratcheted back as schools only accept evidence of two extracurriculars.
My other wish would be to change the conversation about failure as something that happened prior to success, and instead conceive failure as success’s constant companion. Similar to my objection to the “CV’s of Failure,” which tend to imply that you too can succeed if you just try, try, again, I can just picture some of the students at Smith feel like they’re failing at failure because they don’t have a sufficiently robust example. It also implies that success and failure are binaries, something that is rarely true in day-to-day life.
I believe the key is helping students define their own failures rather than allowing others to define failure for them. If students are in pursuit of something they believe is meaningful, it is much easier to be resilient. How much of the psychic disturbance inside these elite spaces concerns deep questions about whether or not all of this angst and self-torture is truly worth whatever is at the end of the road?
I tell my students that I see teaching as an extended exercise in failure because every semester I have students who do not learn as much as desired, and I immediately wish I’d done things differently. And yet, at the same time, each semester contains great success, students who have unlocked something meaningful to themselves with my help.
Writing is the same. In my head I have ideas that can change the world. Something seems to happen between my head and the page that dilutes the power of those ideas, but maybe with each effort, I’ll get closer. This is why I teach students to determine their own threshold for success on a piece of writing.
I urge them towards a writing goal where a teacher is happy to give them an A, but the students themselves can’t stop thinking about all the ways the piece could’ve been better
Only when students are empowered to define their own failures are we clearing the way for deep and lasting learning. Awarding certificates for biffing in a game you're not actually committed to may not be all that helpful.
 The “Excellent Sheep” in William Deresiewicz’s formulation.