I m ight end up being wicked successful one day.
At a place like Penn, there’s nothing particularly unique about that. Everyone here has already achieved something significant, already exhibited signs of future potential that might fit neatly into the eventual broad narrative of their success.
It wouldn’t take long to construct a similar, if boring, narrative out of my own experiences. I’m generally happy, I have okay enough grades, I like the people around me and my iCal tells me I’m adequately involved on campus. I graduated from an academically strong New England prep school, and by the grace of the OCR gods, I’ll have a cushier job out of college than anyone in my family before me.
It would be easy to end the story there. It would also be fraudulent.
It would leave out that I don’t have as much fun every weekend as I would like, that my daily internship search has come up empty for months, that I’ve been rejected from more student group boards that I’ve applied to than not and that I continually don’t perform - whether it’s making a presentation at a meeting or making a first impression at a semi-formal - as well as I would like.
None of these “failures” are catastrophic. They don’t constitute any large setback. But I’ve realized two things from talking to my friends around campus: These failures happen to everybody, and they happen all the time.
From our graduation speeches to the informal compliments of our friends and family to President Gutmann’s soaring convocation address, we have been overloaded with the words of those who want to affirm our potential success. But those same well-wishers are loath to mention how constant, nagging failures riddle the road to our desired destinations, even for those of us with the most promising backgrounds and sparkling resumes.
We are surrounded by tales of heroes who overcome extraordinary adversity, be it crippling disability or extreme poverty, and the people behind those stories are rightfully lauded. But for the vast majority of us, our challenges are pedestrian and grating. The failures we live through are boring, and they are not always the productive opportunities for reflection and self-improvement spoken about in self-help manuals. Sometimes, they just suck.
We don’t have to embrace those failures. We don’t have to like them any more than we do now, and we don’t have to stop working to avoid them where we can. But we do need to recognize explicitly that they happen, happen universally, and happen often, sometimes daily, both for us and for the most successful people we know. We need to acknowledge that not only are these failures OK, but that they are inescapable for anyone trying to achieve on a daily basis the way most students at Penn are.
For a lot of us, that recognition won’t materially change much. We might have adopted a productive way to work and to strive without the pressures of notification beeps and hourly deadlines chafing against our health and well-being.
But for those of us who can feel worn out, or worse, because of our obligations, accepting the ongoing nature of little failures might lessen some discomfort. We can cake over reality by talking about “struggfests” and “not being a real person,” but that kind of language reinforces a harmful notion: that messing up, even messing up a lot, means we’re doing something wrong.
When we continue to talk about the daily pressures of college life as if they were abnormal, we can continually make people feel as if their failures are ultimate rather than transient, and worse, that if only they could “get their life together” (whatever that means) like responsible people do, the daily grind would disappear. No one on as talented a campus as this one deserves to blame themselves so severely for such a universal problem.
After all, we might all end up being wicked successful one day.
Akshat Shekhar is a Wharton sophomore from Boston. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.