A lot of people who come to Princeton, or at the very least a lot of the people I know at Princeton (this may be more prevalent amongst lower-income students of color than in the general population), went to decent-but-not-spectacular or maybe even totally off-the-map public schools. And this gives lots of us the common experience of having been big fish in tiny little ponds. I got used to being “special” at a young age, being pulled out of class starting in kindergarten to go to a program for academically gifted children, and then tracked into academically rigorous Math and English programs in the 4th grade (with those same kids I’d been seeing in the earlier program), and then switched to an entirely “accelerated” program in 7th grade, interacting with “regular” kids only in Gym, Health, Study Hall, and Electives. The other students in my program and I had special privileges, including the fact that we simply didn’t get into trouble. We were kind of untouchable, especially in high school, unless we did something REALLLLLLLY BAD. We were “the AP kids”.
And I got used to being praised at school REAL FAST, especially since at home my ex-stepfather’s philosophy was “why should I reward you for doing what you’re supposed to do?”. It was easy to believe there was something special about me, when you pulled me out of class and gave me different teachers so that I wouldn’t be contaminated by the commoners or whatever the fuck you thought would happen to me. And we students of the academically rigorous programs were encouraged to develop our other abilities, so all of a sudden we comprised a large number of the athletes, the band geeks, the artists, etc. In the 8th grade I had a solo in the band concert, a bowl that was traveling around at a state-wide college art fair, and had the highest academic average so got to give a speech at Graduation and be in the newspaper. You couldn’t tell me I wasn’t the shit (at school). School and everything that school embodied was where I shined.
In fact, during my self-deprecating high school years when I tried to tell myself I wasn’t
the shit, I consistently had teachers tell me my dreams weren’t high enough, or that I could do more. I’m sure it’s just teachers’ jobs to encourage students and whatnot, but every single time I take a step back and look at my life, I want to thank Chris Hall for basically laughing at the small liberal arts schools I was looking at and telling me I was Ivy League material. I don’t know if I ever would have considered it without him. He was the same man who, after hearing my poetry for the first time, told me I’d end up in Hollywood one day.
Basically, the point I’m trying to get to here is that for the 13 years of my primary and secondary educations, it was incredibly rare for me to hear that I wasn’t good at something. “You could do better,” were not words that taunted me (while I was at school), though what was praised by my teachers was often found lacking by my mother. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” was a refrain I’d heard often as a small child, but one which I never really got to put into practice as a teenager, because not succeeding was unknown to me.
All of this was to say that if there was anything I was unprepared for when I came to Princeton, or even just to the world outside of my hometown, I guess, was being average. Maybe even below average in some instances, depending on the skill sets we’re talking about. It wasn’t until I came to Princeton Preview and saw what my Astrophysics-major host was like that I realized that being good at something in the context of my high school didn’t mean I’d be good at it here, and I had never been bad at anything (but sports, I guess) before. But I could rationalize that and remember that I was at the then-number-one institution in the country and there were bound to be people here that were better than me at some things, and math/science wasn’t my strong suit anyway.
I was vastly more underprepared for my writing to be criticized. I had always been the person whose writing was held up as an example for other people to follow in class. My only 5s on AP tests were in English Language and English Literature, my Verbal and Writing sections were higher than my Math section on my SAT, and my high 700s subject test in English Language was one of my biggest accomplishments. Writing was my thing, and no one had ever had anything bad to say about it before. So Writing Seminar basically destroyed my academic self confidence (though I only got at B on my first paper), and that was when it hit me that suddenly I was a small fish in a fucking ocean.
To this day, I really don’t handle making mistakes well. I am a planner by nature, and every time something deviates from my plan, I freak the fuck out. When I failed a test in Psych 101 and wound up with the lowest grade I’d ever had in all my years of schooling and my mom didn’t find out and the world kept right on moving, I learned that I can fuck shit up from time to time and not die. But I also quit some of the clubs I was involved in and buckled down academically and got straight As and A-s the next semester, so how bout them apples, Princeton University? I saw my failure as a problem and attacked it with a plan. It is still ingrained into every fiber of my being that failure is something to be avoided.
And all of this is why this article I read today resonated with me so well, but also scared the shit out of me. “Why Success Always Starts with Failure” featured an interview with the author of a new book about adaptation and why failure is necessary for growth and success.
The three ways most of us handle failures are very, very bad at teaching us to adapt:
“Denial. “It seems to be the hardest thing in the world to admit we’ve made a mistake and try to put it right. It requires you to challenge a status quo of your own making.”Chasing your losses. We’re so anxious not to “draw a line under a decision we regret” that we end up causing still more damage while trying to erase it. For example, poker players who’ve just lost some money are primed to make riskier bets than they’d normally take, in a hasty attempt to win the lost money back and “erase” the mistake.
Hedonic editing. When we engage in “hedonic editing,” we try to convince ourselves that the mistake doesn’t matter, bundling our losses with our gains or finding some way to reinterpret our failures as successes.” [I’m so guilty of this one. Rather than call something I did a mistake, I try to focus on what I learned from it and convince myself it was worth having done. I may have learned a lot from it, and it may have been worth doing, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t still regard it as a mistake–that will help me get out of this fear of fucking up.]
We have to learn to fail productively, which reminds me of a line I heard somewhere a long time ago, that someone “tries to fail a little bit better every day.”
“Try new things. “Expose yourself to lots of different ideas and try lots of different approaches, on the grounds that failure is common.” [New things intimidate me because I might not be good at them or might not like them, or might generally be made to look like a bumbling idiot because of them. (I’m hard on myself sometimes.)]
Experiment where failure is survivable. “Look for experimental approaches where there’s lots to learn – projects with small downsides but bigger upsides. Too often we take on projects where the cost of failure is prohibitive, and just hope for the best.“
Recognize when you haven’t succeeded. “The third principle is the easiest to state and the hardest to stick to: know when you’ve failed.””
*audible gulp* And how exactly are we supposed to do that?
Gather feedback. “Above all, feedback is essential for determining which experiments have succeeded and which have failed. Get advice, not just from one person, but from several.” Some professions have build-in feedback: reviews if you’re in the arts, sales and analytics if you release a web product, comments if you’re a blogger. If the feedback is harsh, be objective, “take the venom out,” and dig out the real advice.
Remove emotions from the equation. “It’s important to be dispassionate: forget whether you’re ahead or behind, and try to look at the likely costs and benefits of continuing from when you are.”
Don’t get too attached to your plan. “There’s nothing wrong with a plan, but remember Von Moltke’s famous dictum that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. The danger is a plan that seduces us into thinking failure is impossible and adaptation is unnecessary – a kind of ‘Titanic’ plan, unsinkable (until it hits the iceberg).” [THIS. RIGHT. HERE. is exactly what happens to me when one of my plans fail. It’s like, total system failure and I stop being a functional human being because all of my plans just went out the fucking window and I don’t know what to do.]
He says we need to create “safe spaces to fail.” Places where we can mess up and the world won’t end.
Practice disciplined pluralism. Markets work by this process, encouraging the exploration of many new ideas as well as the ruthless weeding out of the ones that fall short. “Pluralism works because life is not worth living without new experiences.” Try a lot of things, and commit only to what’s working.
Finding “a safe space to fail is a state of mind.” Assuming that you don’t operate a nuclear power plant for a living, you can probably infuse a bit more freedom and flexibility into your workday. Give yourself permission to test out a few off-the-wall ideas mixed in with the by-the-book ideas.
Imitate the college experience. “College is an amazing safe space to fail. We are experimenting with new friends, a new city, new hobbies and new ideas – and we’ll often mess up academically and socially as a result. But we know that as long as we don’t screw up too dramatically, we’ll finish college, graduate, and move on – that mix of risk and safety is intoxicating. Yet somehow as we grow older we lose it.” [This is one I have no problem with, haha.]
All in all, this sounds like it might be the next self-help book on my reading list, because being afraid to fuck things up is something I really need to work on.