Everyone one of us, no matter how smart or hardworking, will at some point face the pain of rejection during our time at Penn. We’ve all had the experience of waiting desperately by the phone to hear back from a club or of sending out countless cover letters with no return. And yet, despite the universality of these experiences, almost all of us struggle to accept them.
Dealing with the prospect of failure can be difficult enough but it’s made far more arduous by the fact that we feel the need to hide it. The first step towards solving this problem is normalizing the experience and that’s why initiatives like the “Wall of Rejection” are so important. However, in order to fully alleviate the stigma of failure, we first need to interrogate the system that’s created it.
At the heart of the problem is what I consider to be the paradox of Penn culture. Our hypercompetitive environment pressures us to be perfect while simultaneously making the likelihood of experiencing failure almost certain.
Even though Penn students are highly successful people, most of us feel overwhelmed by even the slightest of failures. The majority of what we face — a C in statistics, a botched interview — are just road bumps in the grand scheme of things. They are neither life nor career-ending failures and yet we tend to view them not as bumps in the road, but as walls blocking our path to future success.
The anxiety Penn students have about failure can often seem irrational when considered in light of how bright our overall futures tend to be. It seems that, to many professors, this perceived irrationality is just evidence of oversensitivity on the part of us students — likely the product of our coddling parents and overinflated egos. It’s not uncommon to hear a professor explain their grading policy with the caveat that we shouldn’t complain about what we get: “One B-plus won’t kill you.”
While these professors may be right to critique the undue importance that’s put on grades, choosing to make students the subject of their flippant remarks is surely misguided. The truth is that our fear of failure has a lot more to do with the market than it does our precious egos.
Higher education is an incredibly competitive environment and increasingly so. Perhaps a few B’s may have been par for the course 30 some years ago, but now the market has changed. Every year more and more applicants with higher levels of education and experience are entering the job pool. That means standards are constantly increasing and acceptance rates diminishing.
The reason we’re so afraid to fail is that we know we’ll be judged against someone who hasn’t. In this environment a mistake is not an opportunity to learn and struggling is not a chance to grow. Instead they’ve become impediments to the perfect transcript, the perfect resume, and that can mean the difference between who gets the job and who gets rejected.
Of course that isn’t to say that we’ll all be defined by our failures. Penn students tend to go on to do great things no matter what our transcripts say. But that doesn’t discount the fact that we’re in a highly competitive environment and when you spend all your time being graded, it can feel like every mistake you make is being judged on a curve. Not only does this put an unnecessary strain on our mental health, but it can actually keep us from succeeding.
One of the underappreciated aspects of our hypercompetitive culture is that our fear of failure often outweighs the prospect of success. What that means is, even amidst a school filled with high achievers, we’ve created a drive towards mediocrity.
When it comes to picking out courses we value a lack of difficulty over quality. And most of us would rather drop a particularly challenging course than let the record show we had to struggle. These behaviors don’t make for better students, but they make for better transcripts.
When put this way, it’s hard not to be cynical about the whole process. But luckily many of us here at Penn will go on to shape that process. In a matter of time it will be us sitting in the interviewer’s chair reviewing the next generation of applicants. Rather than holding them to an unreasonable standard of perfection, we should choose to value the struggles — and failures — that shape all of our careers.
CAMERON DICHTER is a College junior from Philadelphia, studying English. His email address is email@example.com. “Real Talk” usually appears every other Monday.
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