We need to talk about failure

Credit: CollegeDegrees360

Claire Thomson
Deputy Editor

In October last year I applied for a graduate job I thought would be the “one”. In November, I received a rejection email.

This was not my first disappointment or failure, and nor will it be my last. But every failure knocks a dent in the armour of confidence and resilience built up over four cosy years of university. Some of us are privileged enough to go through the relative safety of university unscathed, with the cheerful and unchallenged assumption that it’ll all be okay in the end. We went to university, worked hard and got a 2:1 in English. Why wouldn’t it then follow that we’d then land the dream job, sign the lease for a one bed flat in Islington and fill it with overpriced cushions and maybe even a mini terrarium? The terribly courteous rejection email takes this vision of post-graduation life and throws it into the air. It may as well have deleted all our Pinterest boards.

In her 1961 essay, ‘On Self Respect’ Joan Didion confesses that she did not make Phi Betta Kappa – a prestigious liberal arts and sciences honour society in the States, “The day that I did not make Phi Beta Kappa nevertheless marked the end of something, and innocence may well be the word for it. I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me.” This, I think, is the crux of the pain of failure at this stage in life – the realisation that it might not be alright in the end, maybe we won’t get the job or the house, or even the life we had envisioned would be waiting for us after four years of study.

In the same essay, she writes of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s failure to become president of the student theatre troupe, the Princeton Triangle Club. If she were writing now, she might have added that Oprah was fired from her first TV job. Or that Dick Cheney dropped out of Yale twice. I could fill this entire issue with tales of eventually successful writers, TV personalities or world leaders but I don’t think that’s what any student really needs to hear. What we need to see and talk about is the failure of our peers. And not for the purposes of gleeful schadenfreude, but to consolidate these stories of failure into what they are; a reflection of the reality of life.

Even after watching Hillary Clinton concede a punishing electoral defeat, I didn’t want to tell anybody that I had failed. Even after tearfully listening to her tell America’s young women, “I’ve had successes and I’ve had setbacks. Sometimes, really painful ones… You will have successes and setbacks, too. This loss hurts, but please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it”, I wasn’t prepared to share my own failure with anyone other than my boyfriend. What Hillary Clinton’s dignified concession didn’t change was the culture of success ingrained in Glasgow University. Perhaps that’s to be expected; Glasgow is a Russell Group university, to gain admission in the first place requires academic success and to keep up with the demanding workload necessitates drive and resilience. So of course, my peers are highly intelligent, ambitious and seem to succeed at whatever takes their fancy; telling everyone that actually, I had failed, was unlikely.

But when I did broach the subject, I discovered I was far from alone; almost everyone had experienced a setback, a rejection or a failure recently. So why didn’t we talk about it? As a culture, we seem pathologically phobic of failure. We’re only interested in posting grainy photos of “Congratulations!” emails on Snapchat stories, artful Instagrams of celebratory Prosecco and jubilant Facebook statuses. It’s only natural that we present the best version of ourselves online and celebrating and sharing success is no bad thing.

I’m not suggesting that everyone Tweet the details of painful rejection immediately, or become the dreaded over-sharer, but I do think we need to discuss our stumbles more openly and freely. Teenager Claudia Vulliamy turned her Oxford rejection letter into an abstract piece of art, and it went viral. I’ve come to think that there’s a lot more heart and honesty in accepting your failure and turning it into something positive, than there is in pretending it didn’t happen, like I did. So, in the spirit of practicing what I’m preaching… I can’t do maths, I recently applied for work experience with a TV show and wasn’t successful, I have broken every vacuum cleaner I’ve ever owned and I didn’t get into the civil service. But it might just be okay.