Thoughts from Counselors

FAIL: Is It Really Such a Bad F-Word?

by Brandi Willis Schreiber, Senior Academic Counselor and Program Director

“It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case, you fail by default.” – J.K. Rowling

It might seem ill-timed to think about failure so close to finals and the end of a long semester, but this blog post isn’t about imagining failure as an unchangeable outcome: it’s about looking at it as an opportunity for growth. Let me explain.

Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal published an article analyzing recent Federal Reserve data and found that the number of Americans below the age of 30 who own their own businesses has hit an all time low: a decrease from 10.6% to 3.6%. This finding prompted a flurry of articles and conversations from business insiders to Harvard professors.

Why is this such a big deal, you may ask? Well, the number one reason cited for this decrease in entrepreneurship was “a fear of failure.”(1)

In other words, many people in the most educated generation in America, which has grown up with positive psychology and an abundance of self-esteem and an I-can-accomplish-anything attitude, is afraid of failing in the business sector. And this isn’t the only place they aren’t taking chances.

We see this “fear of failure” in our daily work, as well. It is inevitable as an Academic Counselor to have multiple conversations throughout the week with students who are not just afraid to fail, but terrified of it. When we get to the root of these conversations, to the “why” of what is causing these feelings that often result in inaction, we find two things are common:

  1. Many students have never truly failed before, and because of this, they haven’t learned from failure. They are afraid of what it means, how it will feel, how it will define them, and ultimately, how to deal with it.
  2. Many students who have failed before haven’t developed the grit and problem solving skills they need to make it through the next failure. As a result, they fear taking chances, of doing things differently, and as a result, don’t grow from the experience.

Failure is an inevitable part of life, but modern society sells, promotes, and yes, even teaches that it can be avoided. This is a lie, and unfortunately, a lie that many people believe. The truth is that there will be classes in which it will be impossible to earn an A. There will be jobs for which students are not equipped or prepared, and therefore, cannot do. There will be relationships that don’t work out, ideas that will crash gloriously to the ground, “10,000 ways that won’t work,” as Thomas Edison wisely put it.

The failure itself isn’t the tragedy; it’s not being willing to try in the first place out of fear that the failure will hurt so badly or will be so impossible to overcome that one can’t recover that is the real tragedy.

When I talk to students about the reality of their choices, their academic progress, and their goals, I try to help them see that failure can actually work for them in the long run. More importantly, the bravery, creativity, and ambition that is required to try something and fail at it makes the success, when it comes, more meaningful, well-earned, and sweeter to experience.

More importantly, no risk is too small. Students who take smart risks, whether it be trying a new study strategy, talking to a professor, taking steps toward a better-fitting major, or changing personal patterns of behavior that don’t serve them well, develop the self awareness and self efficacy that is necessary in adulthood.

Need a little more inspiration on failing?  Here are a list of some famous people who attempted to fail gloriously (to paraphrase Bruce Lee) and did so before they learned the skills, grit, and courage to hit the mark in their careers:

* Julia Child failed her final exam at Le Cordon Bleu in 1950. She went on to become a famously celebrated culinary genius.(2)

* Stephen King endured 30 rejections for his novel, Carrie. He went on to become a best-selling author whose books have been made (and remade) into some major blockbusters.

* Vincent Van Gogh, the famous Impressionist painter, sold only one painting (for nearly nothing) in his entire lifetime. His paintings are now some of the most valuable, highly sought after, and admired in the world.

* Winston Churchill failed the sixth grade AND in every election he ran in until he turned 62. His astounding leadership during WWII helped bolster English morale, unite the Allied Forces, and win the war against Germany.(3)

* Michael Jordan was cut from his high school varsity basketball team. He has some of the best insight on failure: “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

What are you willing to try at today – and possibly fail at – to be a better student, worker, and person tomorrow?


  1.  Simon, Ruth & Barr, Caeilainn.  “Endangered Species:  New U.S. Entrepreneurs.”  The Wall Street Journal.  2 Jan. 2015.  Web.  21 Apr. 2016.
  2. “How Well Do You Know Julia Child, the Woman Who Started the Cooking Craze?”  Bluffton Today.  20 Feb. 2013.  Web.  23 Apr. 2016.
  3. Bilanich, Bud.  “50 Famous People Who Failed at Their First Attempt at Career Success.”  Bud Bilanich:  Your Career Mentor.  n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

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