Overcoming a Fear of Failure

By Rachel Wishnie-Edwards

One of the scariest things for young people is the possibility of failure.  At Georgetown, where the pressure to be the best is overwhelming, the thought of not immediately succeeding can be devastating.  The fear of getting an F is, for many, as much of a motivating force as the hope of getting an A.  While not being accepted to a club or organization is heartbreaking at the time, we should all take a step back and think about just what that “failure” will mean for us.  Growing up, I was given the advice to “learn from my mistakes.”  How does that apply now?

In obvious ways, that means that doing poorly on a test indicates the need for a change in study habits.  Not making a sports team teaches us to practice harder.  The more difficult situations require a little more effort on our part: does not getting into a club mean that we’re not cool or fun enough?  How do we change that?  In these cases, such failures should take us back to the drawing board.  A friend of mine began her freshman year here thinking that she would join a cappella, and find her group of friends there.  After not getting into any of the groups she auditioned for, she wound up becoming a Blue and Gray tour guide and loving the new group of friends she found, and showing off Georgetown to prospective students.  In her case, what my friend initially thought was a failure ultimately her to find her niche.

Failures should be jumping-off points for trying things we never imagined and falling in love with them, as my friend did.  In the commencement address she gave at Harvard in 2008, J.K. Rowling, bestselling author of the Harry Potter books, spoke about the benefits of failure in her own experiences.  When she wrote the first Harry Potter book she was unemployed and divorced.  She explained, “rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”  Only when her life failures had “stripped away the inessential,” when she had nothing more to lose, could J.K. Rowling give her imagination free reign to reassemble the pieces of her life.  Had she not experienced the setbacks of being a single mother on welfare, she never would have created the Harry Potter series (and my childhood would have been incomplete).

A poll conducted by Time and Real Simple magazines in 2014 revealed disparities in the ways men and women approach and deal with failures.  A fear of failure makes people less likely to take risks, which can hinder their progress both professionally and personally.  The poll results suggest that women fear failure more than men do, and they don’t recover from them quite as quickly.  This means that a woman unwilling to take professional risks may be less likely to be promoted to a leadership role than her male counterpart.  Women need to lean in, trying and failing, in order to succeed in their intended field or any other.

In her memoir My Beloved World, Justice Sonia Sotomayor described the myriad of obstacles she had to overcome in her path to becoming a Supreme Court Justice.  As a child, her experience with having diabetes and an alcoholic father forced her to be stronger and more independent.  Throughout her life she took more direct failures as personal challenges to learn and grow from.  When she didn’t get a gold star in elementary school, she approached her classmates who did in order to learn the best ways to study and do well in class.  At Princeton as an undergrad, Sotomayor realized she had poor English and writing skills so she taught herself by reading classics and practicing writing, all in addition to her schoolwork.  At her first job at a legal firm in New York she struggled and was given basic tasks as a result.  Like with anything else, she took this as a challenge and became one of the top prosecutors and, later, a judge.  An NPR review of her book reads “for the reader, one of the most fascinating aspects of the Sotomayor personality turns out to be the way she confronts her fears and failures.”

The most important failure-turned-success was, in my opinion, the invention of the chocolate chip cookie.  Ruth Wakefield, owner of the Toll House Inn, was trying to make chocolate cookies by melting Nestle chocolate chips while her cookies baked.  Instead, she accidentally made the first Nestle Toll House chocolate chip cookies.  In my own life, I’m trying to turn a poor grade on a midterm into a learning and growing experience.  This won’t discourage me from taking similar, harder classes, or make me feel like a failure as a student.  Instead I will learn from my mistakes and push myself harder, because failure is the beginning of a story, not the end.