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Fail early, fail often

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MAY 04, 2017

The best piece of advice I can leave this campus as a graduating senior is not advice you will find with an L&S adviser, and almost assuredly not advice you will receive from your parents: Fail early and fail often.

What do I mean by “fail”? I mean seriously disappoint yourself, and do something that falls pretty damn short of the absurdly high expectations you set for yourself when you came here. I mean do your best when your best is still not good enough. I mean bomb a midterm (or a few) — and not bomb like “wow I’m so used to getting A’s but this will bring my grade down to a B-,” but bomb like “two standard deviations below average and what does this mean for my major?” I mean get rejected from every club you apply for — maybe even from the Haas School of Business, too — and start to wonder if what you want to do aligns with what you feel you’re able to do.

I mean fail or barely pass Physics 7A, Biology 1A, Chemistry 1A, Math 1B or any other huge, introductory course specifically designed to weed out students from popular majors, and don’t let it tear you up inside. And if you are sitting at the top of your coursework, find something more challenging and struggle there. I have a theory about these courses: they don’t weed out students with low marks but that they weed out students too fearful of low marks. Unfortunately, the net result is that you have exclusively people who are doing well academically and people who aren’t doing so well but pushed through anyway. Both groups are all strung out, the former because they’re in too deep for a mistake and the latter because they feel alone with their sub-3.0 GPAs and wavering determination that no one really understands.

In short, yikes.

What do I mean by “fail early”? Fail in these ways (or others! — get creative) no later than the end of your sophomore year or before you take your first upper-division course. For activities with immediate supervisors, such as managers and coaches, don’t fail so early that they haven’t first gotten to know you as a person and you’re expendable, but don’t fail so late that all involved parties, yourself included, feel as though perfection is the only path. This part is crucial. Failure is inevitable, and the higher you go, the further you will fall, so addressing it early on is the best way for everyone to realize the futility of striving for an ideal that does not exist.

What do I mean by “fail often?” A single failure won’t teach you anything other than how to handle failing in that one area. So fail all over the place until you’ve smashed your grand pillars of expectations to smithereens. At least fail often enough that you don’t lose sight of the fact that a single bad mark won’t break you, or that your head gets so big that you feel immune to failure. Everyone will experience self disappointment eventually.

And when you fail, the next step is key: pick yourself up, dust yourself off, keep trying until you fail again, and repeat. Welcome to life!

Isn’t there some inspirational quote that goes “Failure is not an option,” as if that’s somehow motivating and not extremely damaging? I strongly disagree. Failure is not only an option but a necessity.

Learning how to fail with grace is inarguably the most valuable skill I learned at UC Berkeley, where demolishing my expectations and reformulating my goals were key steps in my personal, academic and professional development. But it seems to me that UC Berkeley churns out a number of panicked students who are not at peace with the reality of failure — and, pardon my language, it kind of fucks them up in a big way.

It would be narrow of me to pretend there isn’t important nuance here, such as capped majors and family pressure that can be the difference between financial support and independence. But I do want to urge those who find themselves in these situations to strongly consider their sources of motivation and analyze the sources of good and bad pressure in their lives. Discussion question: Is constant misery worth proving something to someone, and why?

As soon as you fail, you release yourself from the bonds of perfection and immediacy. College is the grandest balancing act ever performed, and we’re all constantly trying our hardest, like distressed schoolkids petrified by the prospect of being sent to the principal’s office. So for goodness sake, fuck up and see that failure isn’t so bad. Fuck up and learn to do better next time. If you aren’t learning how to fail in life, you’re missing out on the most crucial lesson of all.

Melanie Archipley joined The Daily Californian in fall 2013 as a layout designer before becoming design editor in summer 2014, night producer in fall 2014 and assistant manager of production in fall 2016. She is graduating with bachelor's degrees in astrophysics, physics and German.

MAY 04, 2017