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Fail Thee Well

Failure comes in many mutable forms: A lost job. A burned pie. A cloud of ravenous aphids devouring a prized rose bush in midsummer.

It can strike after decades of success, or daily, or never. Or just that once.

Failing, though a distinctly personal experience, can whip up a universal gut-churning uneasiness. At Swarthmore especially, opinions on failure are tangled up in the all-encompassing drive to excel.

After all, failure is something to avoid.

Isn’t it?

Staring unblinking into failure and absorbing—even appreciating—the experience is a practice that’s gaining ground. Casting fresh light on the topic is becoming more common on college campuses, too, where high- achieving students are sometimes just starting to grapple with the concept.

“Failure is uncomfortable,” says Bridget Scott ’18. “No one I can think of likes it.”

She got familiar with the feeling, though, in a Swarthmore chemistry lab.

“It was the toughest class I’ve ever taken—every week, I felt like I fell more behind,” she says. “I was angry at myself and convinced that I failed this introductory course that was supposed to be easy for everyone.”

But friends and campus mentors helped her see things differently.

“I began to realize this is an experience that every Swat student has at some point,” she says. “One grade doesn’t define me—this takes a lot longer for some people to realize at Swarthmore. I learned what I could control, and what I could do to bounce back from failure.”


Sabrina Moyle ’96 wasn’t bracing for failure when she and her sister, Eunice, founded the design studio Hello!Lucky. But she was definitely anxious. They started their letterpress greeting-card company in 2003, the same year that Facebook launched.

“Our lives were changing, and so was the world,” she says. “We were scared that people might stop sending cards.”

She worried, too, about what others would think if the business failed—especially her Stanford Business School classmates and her colleagues at the prestigious consulting job she had just quit.

“I was scared of what they would think even if I succeeded—after all, none of my classmates were starting small businesses, let alone anything as seemingly frivolous as greeting cards.”

The sisters started selling wedding invitations, holding out hope that—even if social media made the greeting card obsolete—traditional invites would remain in vogue.

Though paper invitations were about to become a big business, the sisters struggled to keep up with the rapidly changing market, sacrificing free time and dealing with demands of high-end wedding planners.

“We were running out of cash,” Moyle says. “I was hating my long days of testing our website and dealing with wedding emergencies.”

They were in over their heads. Even after landing the cover of Martha Stewart Weddings, the business was failing. In 2013, eight years after starting it, they closed the print studio and laid off 20 loyal staffers.

“It was a painful, expensive failure that pushed me to the brink,” says Moyle. “But it also opened a door.”

By losing everything, she found a new purpose inspiring people to lead more joyful, creative lives. In addition to licensing their designs to a growing number of partners, the sisters co-founded the Write_On letter-writing campaign, designed popular posters for the Women’s March on Washington, and wrote three books to empower young people. The business is now profitable.

“Our new business model freed my time up to return to my passion to help enact social change,” adds Moyle, who joined the board of The Mosaic Project, which teaches middle- school students to peacefully interrupt discrimination and inequality.

Still, it was a choppy ride, especially in light of the culture she’d experienced at Swarthmore.

“We set such high standards for ourselves, exacerbated by demanding professors and brilliant peers, that we created a pressure-cooker environment,” she says. “Sometimes it felt like we needed to sacrifice ourselves at the altar of academic excellence.”

Realizing it was OK to stumble opened Moyle’s eyes.

“One of the hardest things about shutting down Hello!Lucky’s wedding business was the guilt of admitting to my peers, to my family—to the world—that I failed,” she says. “Once I took responsibility for what I was meant to learn from the experience, I gained the freedom, wisdom, and confidence to move on toward a fuller realization of my life’s calling.”


Failure is a natural—and important—part of the educational journey, says Swarthmore Director of Admissions J.T. Duck, who reads countless Common Application essays on what prospective students have learned from their own shortfalls. Duck is focused on how students use their support networks and maintain their optimism. 

“We want to identify students who are nimble in their approach to Swarthmore’s—and life’s—challenges and opportunities,” he says.

Educators at elite colleges are seeing unprecedented levels of stress among students, adds Rachel Simmons, author of Enough as She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives, who facilitated a special failure workshop at Swarthmore.

“If students don’t have the tools to manage failure, they grow fearful of it,” she says. “They limit themselves by avoiding the creativity and risk-taking that yields the most exhilarating kind of learning. Giving them the tools to handle setbacks takes the fear out of the experience and teaches students that failure is a critical part of learning and personal strength.”

Simmons says many of the highest- achieving students use self-criticism as a form of motivation, but she advocates for self-compassion instead.

“Why should we have to beat ourselves up to move forward?” she asks. “I don’t want my students to believe they have to trade their self-worth and wellness in exchange for success.”


Self-compassion is so important, in fact, that Stephanie Lechich ’14, a clinical psychology doctoral student at Long Island University in Brooklyn, has made it the cornerstone of her research and practice.

“Embracing difficult experiences and integrating them into one’s identity shows the ability to relate to others in a healthy way,” she says. “When someone doesn’t see achievement as a direct measure of one’s self-worth, it becomes easier to treat yourself and others with kindness—regardless of the extent of your successes.”

A star shooting guard in high school, Lechich came to Swarthmore confident she would excel on the basketball court. “I imagined that I would set myself apart,” she says.

Instead, she sat on the bench for the first three years.

“This was deeply humbling,” says Lechich, who had to learn new skills before becoming a starter her senior year. “I had to develop the capacity to be kind to myself despite my frustration and to redefine success by setting more realistic standards.”

She found the same to be true of the academic experience at Swarthmore, where top-of-their-high-school-class students are quickly humbled by their first C’s, D’s ... or worse.

“Talking to fellow students can bolster confidence,” Lechich adds.
“It can be difficult to appreciate the inevitability of failure and its importance for personal growth, but by not allowing the feeling of failure to swallow you whole or dictate your self- worth, you can become a more skilled and confident person.”


“Swatties try to be tolerant of failure, but there’s some tension there: Nearly all of us who make it into a place like Swarthmore only do so because we successfully navigated school and social systems that are intolerant of failure,” says Sabrina Joy Stevens ’07, a senior manager for campaign and digital strategies at the National Women’s Law Center in D.C. “We’re all in an ongoing process of unlearning the perfectionism that got us there.”

She discovered this about herself in a previous role as an executive director in an education organization.

“I was so desperate to prove I was capable that I was too terrified to admit when I didn’t know something or needed help,” says Stevens.

Accepting that she should leave that position—and let go of her perfectionism—proved transformative.

“I learned a ton from it,” she says. “I was reminded of how important it is to listen to my gut, even when it’s telling me things that my ego finds inconvenient. I’m a better person for having learned those lessons.”

Trial and error are often the path to discovery, but especially in science. “‘Failure' isn’t a word that I use

in research,” says Kathleen Howard, a biophysical chemistry professor at Swarthmore. “The whole point is to figure out something new and unknown.”

After all, research requires you to redefine what “success” and “failure” even mean.

“It is a process of exploration,” she says. “You might not reach whatever destination you had in mind, but that is something you have to embrace.”


The same is true in other fields.

“The constant in an artist’s life is failure,” says Brian Meunier, a Swarthmore art professor who has published several children’s books. “I’ve come to fully expect that the work will come out differently from my original idea.”

Meunier applies this principle to his teaching, too.

“In the 38 years that I’ve been teaching at Swarthmore, there’s always something that happens differently each semester, something unexpected,” he says. “I either use that the next time I teach the course, or make sure I avoid it.”

One thing he always tries to teach is that the Swarthmorean tendency toward perfectionism can actually get in students’ way.

“Perfectionists are risk-adverse, and you simply cannot do art in any meaningful way if you don’t take risks,” he says. “My primary task is to find ways throughout the semester to gently, and with good humor, ease the students away from the stranglehold of their perfectionism.”

When it comes to encouraging future entrepreneurs and visionaries, Katie Clark, director of Swarthmore’s Center for Innovation and Leadership, believes in helping students focus on learning from their mistakes and failures—in the most productive ways possible.

“If students can start to learn how to negotiate failure and think of failure as a skill they can practice,” she says, “they’ll be better equipped to be lifelong learners from their own individual experiences.”

Entrepreneur Laura McKee ’88 found an opportunity to do just that. The co-founder of Autism Home Support Services faced an embarrassing moment with her team when she admitted she hadn’t yet accompanied one of her techs into the field.

“Ever since, I have made it a point to spend time ‘in the trenches’ with the folks who are closest to the customers,” she says. “That was a great learning experience.”

Rather than letting the idea of failure rattle us, McKee believes it should rally us.

“It’s natural to want to de-emphasize mistakes or, alternatively, to dramatize failures as being catastrophic, but it can be the steps to the side that bring the most enjoyment and satisfaction,” she says. “Swarthmore is a tremendously fertile environment to continue becoming the person that the sum of your experiences—good and bad—makes you.” 

Fictional characters have much to teach about confronting failure, adds Jocelyn Roberts Davis ’84, who studies and writes on literature’s lessons of leadership. “Shakespeare’s Henry V is a great example of a leader who is adaptable and able to learn from his failures,” says Davis, author of The Greats on Leadership: Classic Wisdom for Modern Managers. “He reflects, asks for advice, and is willing to take different approaches. Most importantly, he’s not committed to his own rightness.”

Brian Meunier steps a few feet back from his project in a Swarthmore classroom, squinting his eyes and reassessing its rightness and wrongness as parts of a whole.

We can look at failure in this way, too.

The job was lost, yes. The pie was burned. The roses were stripped. But in the disappointment, new paths were beaten out. (And hungry aphids fed.)

More exacting than perfection, failure demands new ways of looking and like the matchless monarch Henry, a willingness to try again.




A Matter of Perspective

Over the last couple of decades, I have been privy to a lot of failure conversations—thousands as an anxiety therapist and, yes, a few in my own head, too. Most have been the Mark Twain variety: tragedies we live through that never happened. Still, we suffer just as greatly from the failures we invent as from the ones that occurred.

As a therapist, I help patients understand that there is no monolith called failure. It is one narrative frame among many other possibilities. When we choose to make a more nuanced analysis, look what we can discover. As a wise friend told me, “What’s the best example of failure? America. My goodness, how those explorers completely missed their mark!”

So it is for us. We ended up somewhere else, or it seems we did. The time spent fighting what happened prevents us from exploring where we’ve landed and integrating new discoveries into our life.

As a Swarthmore student in Patrick Henry’s religious studies class, I had the clichéd experience that I’d never had before. I got a B. I went through—sort of—Schopenhauer’s stages of truth: ridicule (This class isn’t important); violently opposing (This is impossible!); accepting as a given (Right, the truth hiding within that B for me—I am not good at everything I do. I am not religious-scholar material and that’s OK! Liberating!).

This was a radical shift in my 20-year-old mind. But today as a 50-plus-year-old, I continue to relearn the lesson that, yes, there are things I can’t do well, but I can ask for help from others who can. Liberating, still.

In the end, failure is code for transition. A pivotal point. It’s uncomfortable until you adjust. You just haven’t learned the meaning for you, yet. The key is shortening the interval between the alienation of perceived failure and being reunited with ourselves.

We can never really fail. We keep trying. We can’t plan those points of inflection, but whether by enlightenment or belly-crawling through the morass, we—by our indelible imprint toward growth—flip that curve around from the downturn we expected to the uptick we discover as we reach toward the sun.

Tamar Chansky Stern ’84 is the founder of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety and author of the Freeing Yourself from Anxiety and the Freeing Your Child From Anxiety series