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Let’s Make Failure Less Monumental

I knew when I came to Barnard that, during my time here, I wanted to focus on writing. I wanted to write stories and articles, wanted to edit other people’s writing, wanted to concentrate in creative writing and ultimately devote my life to it. And so far, I’d say I’ve mostly achieved that; I’ve taken writing classes, I write for Her Campus, I edit for Spectator. Therefore, it was a natural transition for me to discover, and covet a highly sought-after position on campus: I wanted to be a Writing Fellow.

The application process for Fellows involves a form for basic information, a supplemental essay, a faculty recommendation, and an editing test on a student-written paper. I set a reminder on my phone for the day the application went live, wrote the essay to the best of my ability, asked for my faculty recommendation weeks in advance, and pored over the student essay to write thoughtful comments in the margins. When I handed in my application, I felt confident, assured of the skills I had built throughout high school and my first semester of college, skills I took pride in and was passionate about.

The interview list was posted after a weekend of waiting, and I walked up to the door where it was taped to scan for my name. I looked once. It wasn’t there; maybe I’d missed it. There were, after all, a lot of names on the list. I looked again, starting from A and reading to Z. I went again from Z all the way back to A.

How do I describe failure? It’s a personal and yet universal emotion, one we can all identify, but identify differently. For me, failure is the press of my tongue against the roof of my mouth, a clench in my stomach, the sudden awareness of my own weight, of the heaviness of standing upright. It is a fear of 20 pairs of eyes staring at me, even though I know nobody’s looking – I saw the names that did make the list, names of classmates and friends, and I imagined them all watching me as I stood there, looking on with detached pity.

I checked the list once more, but it was no use. A message at the top encouraged rejected first-years to apply again next spring, but I knew that wasn’t an option for me, not if I wanted to study abroad. I would never be a Barnard Writing Fellow.

I tried to rationalize it in my mind. The Writing Center has said they’re trying to diversify their ranks and take in less English majors, so maybe that was it. Or there had been some mistake with my faculty recommendation, maybe. Or my application had gotten lost in the pile. That had to be it. I accepted anything, anything but a confirmation that I wasn’t as talented or knowledgeable about writing, my lifelong passion, as I thought I was.

But why was that so hard for me to accept? I took the night to think about it, texted my mom the news, and was shocked when she sent back a simple, “Oh, well. One less thing to worry about.” I couldn’t believe that she could just brush this off when I was suddenly questioning whether I was a good writer at all and whether I knew anything about my beloved craft. How could I be a writer if the very program dedicated to writing on campus didn’t think I knew what I needed to know?

But then I remembered something: I’m eighteen years old.

There’s a pressure to succeed as much as possible and as early as possible. It’s something that’s particularly present in current youth culture, as pointed out by my favorite YouTuber Nathan Zed in a video called “Succeed by 25…OR FAIL FOREVER?” Sometimes, it can be easy to get caught up in the hustle and lofty expectations of being at Barnumbia, and in the city that never sleeps.

But I – and you, too, probably – have to remember that failure means very little unless you make it mean a lot: Arianna Huffington was rejected by 36 publishers. JK Rowling’s draft of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected by 12. Even Obama didn’t get into his top-choice college.

Failures should not lead to existential crises, nor to bitter grudges and endless questioning of, “Why?” They’re not the end-all, be-all of what defines us as human beings.

So let’s make failure less monumental. Let’s turn our failures into plot twists rather than tragic endings. Let’s remember the impermanence of failure and the fact that things are only as important in the moment as we make them. Let’s talk about our failure with friends, and stop trying to hide it like shameful secrets. Because it’s going to happen; it’s one of the inevitable facts of life. But what doesn’t have to happen is the giving up we do afterward.

Erica Kam

Columbia Barnard '21

Erica is an Editor at Her Campus. She was formerly an Associate Editor (2021-22), Contributing Editor (2020-21), Wellness Editor (2019-20), High School Editor (2018-19), and Editorial Intern (2018). She graduated from Barnard College in 2021 with a degree in English and creative writing, and was the Senior Editor of Her Campus Columbia Barnard (2018-21). When she's not writing or editing (which is rare), she's probably looking at food pictures on Instagram.
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