One of the most defining moments of my time in college was experiencing real, crippling failure.
To set the scene, it was my senior year, spring semester, I was taking 18 credit hours including 3 upper division math courses, applying to PhD programs, and trying to make the most of my last semester in undergrad with my friends. I found out in the middle of that semester that I had failed my comprehensive exam. For the second time. The one I needed to pass to graduate with my degree. Meaning I had one chance left to retake it to get the diploma that I had, up to that point, felt entitled to.
I remember calling my mom on the phone that day, barely able to speak between tears of frustration and utter defeat. It didn’t seem real or fair. How could this have happened? I wasn’t the girl that failed. School was my thing, especially math. This wasn’t who I was. I had studied and studied. I had aced almost all of my coursework. And I had spent the past 21 years of my life building up the belief that I was inherently intelligent and successful because I had never encountered anything significantly different, especially when the stakes were so high.
Fast forward to now and the story has a happier ending. I passed and graduated and ended up here still in school for the foreseeable future. But this failure and its lessons have stuck. Though stressful and uncomfortable at the time, it gave me a much-needed, distance from my performance, in school or otherwise. And it fundamentally changed my mindset about my academic career.
First, it helped me realize that I am not defined by my work. How liberating. Although accepting this means my successes don’t define me, it means my failures don’t either. It’s not personal. Lowering the stakes equates to more freedom to take risks and make mistakes. This isn’t about me anymore. My work does not define my value and worth as a human being.
Separating my identity from my performance also helped reframe my performance in terms of a growth-mindset, or in other words, developing the perspective that there’s always some way to learn and grow. Because my achievement is not a function of my identity (which seems somewhat fixed), I can get better with my own efforts. My success is more dependent on my discipline and perseverance, and less on my genetically-encoded predisposition, whatever that may be.
Maintaining a healthy distance from my work is something I’ve practiced since this experience, but sometimes catch myself feeling guilty for. I find myself comparing myself to other students in my program, who seem to be dedicating most of their lives to the pursuit of this degree or their career and then feeling like I am not doing enough. An imposter syndrome of sorts.
This past week in particular, in moments of lowered levels of motivation, I found those thoughts creeping back in. Fortuitously, Clare sent me an article by a famous math professor, which led me to stumble upon one of his personal articles about grace in teaching. (I think everyone, not just educators should read this, it’s that good!) For this professor, one of the biggest lessons he tries to communicate to his students is this distinction between performance and identity. As an instructor, he strives to offer the same attention, care, and mentorship to students at the highest and lowest levels. In his eyes, his attention is not something that is earned through performance, but given to everyone as a human being. (I told you, it’s good stuff!)
This may fly in the face of the modern advice to women in the workplace, that we need to “lean in” to be successful. But I’ve found that having a distance between my idea of my self and my performance, leaning back a little, has helped me be more successful and experience less burn out. Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, attributes the gender gap in part to the way our society treats failure differently for men and women. Girls are taught to be perfect, she argues, while boys are taught to be brave. Giving girls permission to share their imperfect work, through coding, Saujani has witnessed an unmatched confidence develop in the girls enrolled in her program. A confidence, she claims, that may help women take more risks, such as applying for a job they are not fully qualified for, negotiating a raise, or sharing a creative solution to a problem. It is in the spaces of the failures and imperfections where this confidence emerges.
I’m grateful for the lessons of failure I’ve experienced in my life, for they have freed me to embrace the successes more authentically.