“I am literally gonna fail my lit essay.”
These phrases echo across the halls and classrooms of MVHS. Students often throw around the word “fail” almost as casually as they talk about what they ate for breakfast. History teacher Scott Victorine sees this trend among his students frequently.
“I know that the dominant culture here among students seems to be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to fail’ or ‘I know I bombed that test,’ even if they didn’t,” Victorine said. “Chances are, most MVHS students didn’t actually ‘bomb’ a test, but it’s almost like a badge of honor.”
Failure presents itself in many ways, from low test scores to a declining GPA to not making a sports team. For sophomore Yiqiu Zhu, she used to classify making a mistake while speaking in class discussions as a failure. Zhu says she initially did not raise her hand at all due to her apprehension of embarrassing herself in front of her classmates. Since she immigrated to America two years ago, she still has some trouble adjusting to the language barrier.
“I avoid raising my hand in class because [most] of the time I don’t know how to express myself,” Zhu said. “I use words wrong, like, I’ll say ‘there is many’ people instead of ‘there are many people,’ or something like that. So, many times, I don’t want to talk because of [that].”
However, Zhu explains how over the past couple of years, she has worked to overcome her fear of embarrassing herself. She describes that, despite her occasional errors in grammar, she makes attempts to speak up and face the challenges the language barrier provides.
“I realized after some time [that] it doesn’t really matter,” Zhu said. “I talked more and [I] got familiar with the language, so I’m willing to talk.”
While students like Zhu can work towards overcoming fears of failure, Victorine explains that failure does not simply go away with time — it simply shows up in different forms, under the guise of financial instability and professional setbacks. As he has matured, however, Victorine has adopted a mindset aligned with positive psychology.
Positive psychology is the concept of recognizing one’s strengths and using them to approach challenges and goals. It aims to push people into adopting a growth mindset and changing the way they view challenges and failure as a whole. Rather than looking at setbacks as failures, the growth mindset encourages people to use setbacks as opportunities for self-improvement. By incorporating this idea, Victorine’s attitude towards approaching failure has changed dramatically.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have thoughts that were negative from time to time, or that it’s [not] easy to go down that route,” Victorine said. “But once I was aware of [positive psychology], it’s a lot easier to reframe your thinking when [failure] does happen, to self-talk and think like, ‘I’m aware of what I’m doing right now; I’m thinking something negative. How do I reframe this? How do I make it more optimistic, more positive?’”
For senior Elvis Lang, positive thinking and a willingness to try new things, despite fear of failure, is one of the main factors that contributed to his decision to quit playing volleyball at MVHS and instead join the MV Dance Team. After realizing that he did not enjoy the volleyball practices anymore, Lang chose to audition for the dance team.
Initially, Lang was overwhelmed by the numerous techniques he had to learn. As a hip-hop dancer, he had difficulty executing techniques from unfamiliar dance forms such as contemporary. He opened up about his initial struggles on his public Instagram account by posting a dance video upon realizing that in the end, his failures were all part of the process. He documented his journey for all of his friends to see.
“I had my first hip hop class in my life and the routine was really, really good,” Lang said. “I felt like after all of this struggle, like trying to keep up and everything, I was able to succeed and do well. So when I posted that, I wasn’t really concerned with how other people would see me.”
However, for many students, the concept of going into detail about personal failure can be extremely daunting. According to Victorine, failure is often viewed as a reflection of an individual, making students feel afraid to talk about their personal failures. Victorine notices that students avoid the topic of failure not only out of embarrassment, but also because of social pressure.
“While you’re a teenager, normally there’s a need to be accepted by others and a desire to fit in,” Victorine said. “So I understand why a lot of students … might see failure not only as what it is, a setback, but also something that would exclude them from being part of a different social circle.”
In a similar way, Lang explains that students avoid showing the more vulnerable aspects of themselves, especially to the public. As a result of this, there is a tendency among students to make excuses that mask failure.
“I’m pretty sure most people are familiar with the phrase, ‘I didn’t even study, really,’” Lang said. “They don’t want to show that they are struggling to get through things. They don’t want to show that they’re actually working, but failing while trying to learn. Everyone wants to look perfect.”
In a community where the pressure is high and the expectations even higher, the bar for what is considered failure tends to be set at a standard that is never questioned, according to Victorine. The result is a set of standards that are simply accepted as the truth, never questioned or discussed because of people’s apprehension towards talking about failure. Victorine explains how this can have an extremely negative impact on people’s lives.
“I can also see how it could be unhealthy not having a real conversation about not only personal failures, but [also] what we define as failure, how we see failure and how we see success,” Victorine said. “And like, really — why are we setting those parameters for ourselves? Why have we defined this as failure? Why have we defined this as success? So I think it is unhealthy to not bring to the forefront and have a conversation about it. A real conversation about it.”
Victorine explains how facing failure can be one of the most challenging things to deal with; the desire to self-destruct and never face challenges again can be overwhelming at times. He talks about how the fear of failing can paralyze people if they are unable to accept the existence of failure in the first place. By acknowledging that failure is a possibility and accepting its aftermath, however, people can recover both from failure and their fear of it much more easily.
“So if you’ve got a goal to get somewhere, I try to tell people, ‘Don’t lose sight of the goal,’” Victorine said. “We could point out all the clichés like the inventors, and how many times they failed at it, but it’s very real. I mean, if a lot of those inventors hadn’t failed, and kept going, then — I mean, Thomas Edison, we probably wouldn’t know him for the light bulb. We’d know someone else, right? Someone’s going to do it. It’s just whether it’s going to be you or [it’s] going to be somebody else.”
Following her divorce, Bana’s primary concern was not for herself, but for her 3-year-old son. She was unsure how he would respond to the lack of a father in his life and how she was going to succeed in raising him as a single parent.
“For me, it was the people around me that made me feel as if [my divorce] was a failure, that [I] couldn’t keep a family together,” Bana said. “And at that moment, I believed that too. I believed that there [was] something that I could have, would have, should have done to fix it or get out of the situation. But over the years, I think, what I have realized is that it takes a lot of courage to get out of something that’s not working, and try to look for an alternate way.”
Junior Marie Sandler agrees with Bana and acknowledges that at times, the right decision is to step back and let go of the problem. Sandler has been doing ballet since she was five years old and devotes the majority of her time outside of school to the art. However, due to her body structure not quite matching the ideal physique required for ballet, she struggles with certain techniques.
“[My] school is a professional school, so we are expected to be the best, always,” Sandler said. “And even though all of us try our best, a lot of us don’t succeed in everything we do… I come in an hour earlier, or at home, and sit in front of a mirror and work and work until I get it,” Sandler said. “And then at some point, if I realize that no, this is not accessible to me, I figure out the next thing I can work on and move on.”
Bana also expresses the importance of being able to move on — while struggling to recover from her divorce, Bana eventually landed a teaching position at MVHS. She believes that becoming a teacher was a form of therapy that helped her open up. Though initially hesitant to do so, Bana was able to slowly develop more self-confidence and form new relationships with students and peers as she found her place at MVHS.
Bana now believes that her divorce influenced how she responds to her students’ failures. Rather than having her students collapse academically or emotionally due to setbacks, she tries to impress upon them that their response is what dictates their future outcomes.
“How you handle your disappointment is most important,” Bana said. “Learn from your errors. Next time, you will get better at it. But don’t get into this downward spiral … If you are down in the dumps, well then, [like a] sine curve, the only place [to go] once you reach a minima is up.”
Sophomore Andrew Martin believes that the ideal way to handle disappointment is remaining calm and determining where improvements need to be made. Martin doesn’t see failure as a bad thing — on the contrary, he feels comfortable failing in many different areas because he views it as a necessity on the path to success.
“If you don’t do any revision or review, then you’re just going to keep failing,” Martin said. “But the important thing is when you fail, then you go and see how you failed or what you can do to make it better, and then you try to improve.”
Sandler, who often goes to her teachers and friends for help when she is struggling, believes that accepting and opening up about failure is a big step in resolving it.
“I feel like hiding your failure is stopping yourself from moving on and going forward through it,” Sandler said. “So if you want to get over the failure, then you can’t go on until you accept the fact that you’ve failed and [be] pretty open about it.”
Although she has had to help many struggling students, Bana’s hope is that they learn to overcome any failure they are faced with. No matter what area of life her students struggle in — whether it be school, jobs or relationships — she hopes that they take away the important lessons she has learned from her life experiences.
“I think one thing [I do] is make the kids aware of the bigger picture, that how much [of a] role does a little test have in your life,” Bana said. “And one of the most important things is this awareness that we have to handle so-called failures, or disappointments, or challenges in life. I always point out that it’s not what you do in your good times, it’s what you do in your bad times that decides your life — your fate is decided by how you handle your disappointments.”
She had never skated before, going for the first time with her son who was in middle school at the time. Clinging onto the ice rink wall, she inched slowly across the ice as she attempted to stay upright on the slippery surface. All the while, young children frisked about the ice joyously, twirling, doing jumps and tossing snowballs.
“It was so humbling for me to be not able to even do what these 3-, 4-, 5-year-olds could do,” Gupta said. “It is so demotivating when other people can get it so [easily], and there is such a sense of failure in that moment. But … when I went through it, and I could actually ice skate, it was so exhilarating.”
Gupta believes the right mentality is to embrace failure as an essential part of growing and learning. As a trained scientist, she is accustomed to pushing through failure, as it is essentially built into the scientific process.
Biology and STEM research teacher Renee Fallon also calls on her experiences as a scientist, stating that almost all experiments fail on the first attempt. The experimenter must learn from the failure, deal with it and continue on. This philosophy has translated to her teaching practice.
“The way I put it to my students, you’re clipping your own wings,” Fallon said. “If you [fail] at something, [it] means that you did something on the boundaries of your abilities … If you want to stretch your abilities, you have to take risks, which means if you’re going to take any risks at all, intellectual or otherwise, that failure is going to happen … I strongly believe that if you’ve never failed in anything, I feel sorry for you, because that means that you’re caging yourself.”
In theory, an apt metaphor would be learning a new sport, yet Fallon finds that there is a peculiar disparity between how students view failure physically in comparison to intellectually. She feels that despite being conceptually similar, there are two different sets of expectations for each.
“Let’s say you’ve never played basketball,” Fallon said. “If I gave you a basketball and told you how to dribble it, would you expect to be able to dribble the first time you try? Of course not. You know that if you want to learn to do it, you have to practice and you’re going to have to go through that time of failure. For some reason, we expect that with physical things. But we somehow magically expect that not to happen with intellectual things. It’s just way off.”
For physics teacher Jim Birdsong, his first memorable experience with failure was physical — at a swimming event at the age of 13. It was a 200 butterfly, the longest race for the stroke acknowledged by many as the hardest. Treating it as a short race, he achieved a 10th of a second off his personal record for the 100 butterfly in the first half but exhausted himself for the rest of it.
“I just swam it wrong, and everything went horribly poorly,” Birdsong said. “And just everything was a mess. [I] got disqualified and got last place, everything. And then, with the help of my coach, I thought about how I could swim the race [differently], but also how I could prepare so that even if I made the [same] mistake, I would be able to recover from it. So that’s the same thing you have to do in physics. It’s the same thing you have to do when you’re getting like a writing sample graded or whatever. That’s a skill that applies to everything.”
However, neither Birdsong nor Fallon attended academically strong high schools, and were thus successful in school without needing to learn to recover from failure — which left them unprepared for college.
The first essay Fallon got back in college was covered in the professor’s writing, so much that she could barely spot her original typing on the first three pages. The last two remained untouched — the professor had given up. The front of the paper lacked a grade and instead read: “See me soon, like now” with “now” underlined twice.
“Understand, this is a student who’s never had anything less than an A,” Fallon said. “I was terrified — literally trembling as I walk into the room. And she looked at me and she said, ‘You know, I could give you a grade on this paper. Pretty sure you know what it would be. Or you can rewrite it until I’m happy with it.’”
Fallon turned in a total of 10 rewrites.
“I am so grateful to that [professor],” Fallon said. “She’s the one who single handedly taught me how to write … I was so sick of that paper, but I learned so much out of that process of just redoing it. Falling down, redoing it, falling down. I was so frustrated. But that’s where I learned.”
Birdsong also says he struggled immensely his first year of college, having a lot to learn both about the content and study methods. Through the processes of soul searching and trial and error, he figured it out by the end of sophomore year. However, he doesn’t want his students to have to go through the same experience.
“One of my goals in teaching here is to make sure everyone has a chance to screw up here in a nice environment where there’s lots of support, lots of chance for redemptions and do overs,” Birdsong said. “That way they can handle it later on when they’re alone.”
Gupta also attempts to support her students and relate to their struggles. Having taught chemistry for 22 years, she seeks other ways to reinforce the difficulty of the learning process, by challenging herself to learn something new every summer. Aside from ice skating, Gupta has learned to swim, garden, cook, weight lift and Zumba.
“When you stick with [something], and just set yourself or evaluate yourself against your own growth, it is so much better,” Gupta said. “It reduces stress, it reduces that ‘Oh, I’m not good at it. Somebody else gets it so fast.’ … And that reinforces that failure, sticking through failures, is more important. It doesn’t matter how many times you get down, as long as you get up one more time.”
This experiment features subsequent commentary from psychologist Glenn Fisher, who breaks down how students feel about academic pressure and college-related stress. He includes psychology techniques such as attribution theory, group psychology and cultural influences to investigate the students’ behavior.
Do you know people who consider not getting into a “good” college a failure?
When sophomore Joshua Tsai heard this question, his immediate reaction was of disbelief.
“Do you know who you are asking? Do you know your audience?” Tsai said.
“It’s almost like you can predict the responses to this question,” Fisher said. “And again, it might be just because it seems to be so much more of a conversation among students now than it was [in the past]. [More students] talk about how they’re doing and sharing their own achievement or lack thereof, or where they’re struggling.“
Do your parents think not getting into a “good” college makes you a failure?
Fisher details concepts that play into the experiment and the participants’ responses, and similar to previous questions, attribution theory plays an important role.
Another factor is cultural and regional influences. This question, targeting participants’ parents, helps to highlight what students feel their parents think about college, and how student’s familial cultural plays into their responses.
“You’re your own agent,” Fisher said. “If you see yourself as the active agent, the actions you take and the decisions you make are what are important as opposed to other external or environmental factors.”
He also connects the question to group psychology, the idea that when two or more people are making decisions, each person becomes a member of a group and adopts a common identity. This mindset makes it hard for an individual to make a decision that differs from the rest of the group.
“[The students are thinking] ‘If they’re all going there, then I’m going [to that side],’” Fisher said. “’You probably have seen those old psych experiments where, for example, they have experimenters standing in an elevator facing the back of the wall, and so when the true subject enters, they don’t know they are [the actual] subject in the elevator. And first they’re going, ‘What are these people doing? This is so odd.’ But then they feel the pressure to turn around and face the wrong direction. “
“I have to go to Stanford,” Fisher said. “I have to go to Yale. It may not be a good fit, but if you have these internal belief systems, they get in the way.”
Do you consider not getting into a “good” college a failure?
“Because they’re not saying they’re as influenced by their parents [but instead they have their own opinions],” Fisher said, “Well, finally we have some individuation going on. “
Do you know people who consider not having many friends a failure?
Here, students seemed unsure, hesitating before moving to either side. Fisher explains the uncertainty displayed using the concept of the black box.
“You say or do something with someone else and they do or do not respond to it,” Fisher said. “It’s what’s going inside their head that we don’t have the technology to know what they’re thinking or feeling. Often times we’re completely off the mark as to why people do stuff.”
Do your parents consider not having many friends a failure?
“I assume they’re basing this on conversations with their parents,” Fisher said. ”And maybe some parents are concerned about their social life, and other parents are maybe concerned more about academics. It sounds like they’re really starting to think more for themselves.”
Do you consider not having many friends a failure?
“I wonder if they’re feeling like the questions… are directed at them specifically,” Fisher said. “‘Do you … [consider not having many friends a failure?]’ They really have to take ownership of it. They’re giving that question more weight than what their parents think. Again, between the external locus of control and the internal locus of control.”
Do you know people who consider not being physically fit a failure?
“Thinks of self,” sophomore Charvi Talla joked.
“Maybe it’s what the parents are modeling,” Fisher said. “If you have a parent that works out a lot or sufficiently, and you’re not, are you starting to compare yourself with your parents?”
Do your parents consider you not being physically fit a failure?
When a participant in the crowd shouts a comment about what the question means by failure, Fisher explains.
According to Fisher, the operational definition of failure is an objective definition of a commonly used word that can be used to determine factual information.
“What is an operational definition of failure?” Fisher said. “It ends up being in some realms a projective question, that they have to define what failure means to them based on them circumstances.”
Do you consider not being physically fit a failure?
“I eat brownies every day!” sophomore Anant Chaudhary said, walking briskly towards the “no” side.
“I think it’d be a good question to ask them 30 years from now,” Fisher said. “See what condition they’re in and see how they respond to it. [Right now] you’re young and healthy and you haven’t suffered any consequences of not taking care of your physical self.”
Does your fear of failure prevent you from doing some things that might be interesting?
“Like the word failure, [interesting] is not really operational — they have to define what that means to themselves,” Fisher said.
“We can only assume why a lot of them went to the ‘yes’ domain,” Fisher said. “We can only assume it’s part of that culture of, ‘Oh, I got a lot of work to do. And I’m spending a lot of hours doing homework. And I’m not getting enough sleep probably. And I’ve got to get good grades.’”
“Students are under a lot of pressure these days and it’s, if anything, [questions like these] helps them be a little more thoughtful about how they define failure, and/or [success],” Fisher said.