Barnard College President on a Better Way to Process Failure

Debora Spar explains how she draws strength from Billy Joel and moves on from mistakes quickly.

When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.

What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?

What gives you energy?
Working out; long walks; listening to music.

What’s your secret life hack?
Managing my calendar incredibly carefully; and collapsing on the couch every so often with a bowl of popcorn and glass of white wine.

Name a book that changed your life.
Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.

Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?
I check my phone pretty frequently during the day, but it definitely doesn’t sleep with me.

How do you deal with email?
I answer really quickly — generally within a few minutes, and almost always by the end of the day.

You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it?
Take a walk and have a cappuccino.

When was the last time you felt burned out and why?
A few months ago — too much back-to-back travel across time zones.

When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it?
With all due respect, I hate this question, because I think we are in a strange moment of idealizing failure. I make mistakes all the time, and try to fix them as best I can, or to learn from them if I can’t.

Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.
It’s silly, but it works for me, from Billy Joel: “It’s just a fantasy, it’s not the real thing. Sometimes a fantasy is all you need.”

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