A consortium of academics soon formed to share resources, and programs have quietly proliferated since then: the Success-Failure Project at Harvard, which features stories of rejection; the Princeton Perspective Project, encouraging conversation about setbacks and struggles; Penn Faces at the University of Pennsylvania, a play on the term used by students to describe those who have mastered the art of appearing happy even when struggling.
“There is this kind of expectation on students at a lot of these schools to be succeeding on every level: academically, socially, romantically, in our family lives, in our friendships,” said Emily Hoeven, a recent graduate who helped start the project in her junior year. “And also sleep eight hours a night, look great, work out and post about it all on social media. We wanted to show that life is not that perfect.”
At the University of Texas, Austin, there is now a free iPhone app, Thrive, that helps students “manage the ups and downs of campus life” through short videos and inspirational quotes. The University of California, Los Angeles has what it calls a head of student resilience on staff. While at Davidson College, a liberal arts school in North Carolina, there is a so-called failure fund, a series of $150 to $1,000 grants for students who want to pursue a creative endeavor, with no requirements that the idea be viable or work. “We encourage students to learn from their mistakes and lean into their failure,” the program’s news release states.
“For a long time, I think we assumed that this was the stuff that was automatically learned in childhood: that everyone struck out at the baseball diamond or lost the student council race,” said Donna Lisker, Smith’s dean of the college and vice president for student life. “The idea that an 18-year-old doesn’t know how to fail on the one hand sounds preposterous. But I think in many ways we’ve pulled kids away from those natural learning experiences.”
And so, universities are engaging in a kind of remedial education that involves talking, a lot, about what it means to fail.
“I think colleges are revamping what they believe it means to be well educated — that it’s not about your ability to write a thesis statement, but to bounce back when you’re told it doesn’t measure up,” said Ms. Simmons, the author of two books on girls’ self-esteem who is publishing a third, “Enough as She Is,” next year. “Especially now, with the current economy, students need tools to pivot between jobs, between careers, to work on short-term projects, to be self-employed. These are crucial life skills.”
If it all feels a bit like a “Portlandia” sketch, that’s because it actually was one: in which Fred and Carrie decide to hire a bully to teach grit to students, one who uses padded gym mats to make sure the children don’t actually get hurt.
Add “teaching failure” to nap pods (yes, those exist) and campus petting zoos (also common), and you’ve got to wonder, as a cover story in Psychology Today questioned last year: At what point do colleges end up more like mental health wards than institutions of higher learning?
“Look, I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with trying to create experiences that are calming,” said Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Penn. “But I’d like to spend a bit more time figuring out what’s causing those stresses.”
Researchers say it’s a complicated interplay of child-rearing and culture: years of helicopter-parenting and micromanaging by anxious parents. “This is the generation that everyone gets a trophy,” said Rebecca Shaw, Smith’s director of residence life. College admissions mania, in which many middle- and upper-class students must navigate what Ms. Simmons calls a “‘Hunger Games’-like mentality” where the preparation starts early, the treadmill never stops and the stakes can feel impossibly high.
It is fear about the economy — Is the American dream still a possibility? Will I be able to get a job after graduation? — and added pressure to succeed felt by first-generation and low-income students: of being the first in their families to go to college; of having to send money home; or simply overcoming the worry that, as one engineering student put it, “maybe I was a quota.”
“I’m coming from a low-income, predominantly African-American community where there just aren’t resources,” said Arabia Simeon, 19, a junior at Smith. “So there is this added pressure of needing to do well.”
And there’s the adjustment, for many high-achieving students, of no longer being “the best and brightest” on campus, said Amy Jordan, the associate dean for undergraduate studies at Penn. Or what Smithies call “special snowflake syndrome.”
“We all came from high schools where we were all the exception to the rule — we were kind of special in some way, or people told us that,” said Cai Sherley, 20, seated in the campus cafe. Around her, Zoleka Mosiah, Ms. Simeon and Ms. Lancaster nodded in agreement. “So you get here and of course you want to recreate that,” Ms. Sherley said. “But here, everybody’s special. So nobody is special.”
Social media doesn’t help, because while students may know logically that no one goes through college or, let’s be honest, life without screw-ups, it can be pretty easy to convince yourself, by way of somebody else’s feed, “that everyone but you is a star,” said Jaycee Greeley, 19, a sophomore.
It is also a culture that has glorified being busy — or at the very least conflates those things with status. “There’s this idea that I’m not worthy if I’m not stressed and overwhelmed,” said Stacey Steinbach, a residential life coordinator at Smith. “And in some sense to not be stressed is a failing.”
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