Thrive on Campus//

The Key to Success Is Failure

The only way around pain is through it.

Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

Most great stories of conquest and victory are preceded by incredible mourning, destruction, and defeat. The fairy tales we memorized as kids, historical accounts of unlikely heroes, and the perfect endings to movies highlighting the highs of love while negating the lows- all provided a tainted picture of success.

I’m reading David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell and it’s a brilliant book that challenges the way we view the underdogs and misfits of society. Without sharing all of its gems, I’d like to emphasize the benefit of reading the book and discuss the reasons I am redefining success.

David and Goliath is a popular biblical account of a sheep herder known as David and a giant named Goliath who meet in battle. The sheep herder wins the day and all are in awe. The sermons I heard as a child about David only highlighted his win. His courage, his strength, and his clever use of a small stone were mentioned countless times but there was never mention of his preparation or his lowly occupation.The Bible details his depression, affair, sins, and failures. So why wasn’t the whole story told in church? Why do people lean in to hear good news and throw away the essential, gritty details of the rest of the story?

People love stories of success. However, the work that is required and the sacrifices that must be made are off putting. 

Malcom Gladwell’s book triggered me because I love stories of splendor and remarkable victories. I realize I’m guilty of hiring internal narrators to tell me biased, one-sided stories about people I admire. I only want to hear about the arrival. Don’t bore me with tales of delays, cancellations, and turbulence. The pitfalls, dead ends and false starts don’t interest me. They’re not as palatable. I can’t digest the hardships as easily as the celebrations. When I look at the draft of my own memoir (its timeline riddled with loss and heartbreak), I realize any story that omits the ugliness of defeat is fiction and fantasy.

My heroes include: Jesus Christ, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Nelson Mandela, Malala and many other names that aren’t as recognizable. Each of their stories involve painful seasons of loss, confusion, danger, imprisonment, and even a crucifixion. What we see in headlines are their wins. The Resurrection, the Nobel Peace Prizes, book deals, movie premieres, and global recognition. But, dig a little deeper, and their struggles are written about in the pages of their (auto)biographies. The less quoted, less popular accounts of their disappointments and failures are the stories that I really need during difficult times. The fantasy of success fascinates me but it’s the reality of hardship that sustains me. I feel less alone knowing the truth. Failure is a vital input in the equation of success.

Failure is the only way forward. Any attempt to avoid failure is also an active attempt to avoid the future. The heroes we celebrate have witnessed indescribable loss and have come out of depression with grace and a greater sense of self, but that doesn’t nullify the importance of the painful processes that made way for success. I’ve lost quite a bit in this lifetime. Not every loss was handled with grace. Not every disappointment made me grateful for its lessons. I curse the skies sometimes, just as David did in Psalms. I beg for relief and I yearn for victory. We all do. But the only way around pain is through it. 

I have to face my giants in order to conquer them.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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