Addicted to success, and avoiding the cure

I walked out of my midterm Monday morning feeling only one thing: a sore right wrist. The exam had gone well, but I felt no triumph, no satisfaction and no relief. I was just tired of writing. I knew even before I started studying that I could not fail this test even if I took it cold. Given that I had attended lecture and completed the weekly readings, the worst I could score was a B — well, perhaps a B- if the TA were overzealous with her red pen. I don’t claim to be a genius; in fact, I am convinced that most of my peers at Yale are smarter than I am. The bottom line is that my liberal arts midterms are just not that challenging. I am simply not going to receive an F: I am not going to fail.

As a freshman and sophomore, the inability to fail was a positive feature of the liberal arts classes I took. And many of my fellow Yalies seem to share this opinion, as evidenced by the large size of most of my lecture courses and the overwhelming popularity of the history and political science majors. But now, as I complete my final set of midterms, the joy that I should theoretically receive from succeeding on my exams has been deadened by the realization that I was never actually at risk of failing in the first place.

Throughout college, my peers and I have treated this inferior form of riskless success as superior to failure. I am like a sports team on a winning streak, and I have sought out weaker opponents in order to keep my string of victories going. I haven’t realized that winning is significantly less meaningful if the odds are stacked in my favor. I have become progressively more addicted to success. My A’s may not give me the same high anymore, but the more I receive, the more I am afraid to fail. And it has been a long streak; like other Yalies, I arrived on campus without having experienced failure. In fact, in order to get accepted here in the first place we Bulldogs-to-be were success machines in high school — in the classroom, on the lacrosse field, in Carnegie Hall.

I did have a brush with failure freshman year of high school in my geometry honors class. A cheesy motivational poster in our classroom proclaimed, “You have failed only if you have failed to try.” But that was not the lesson about failure I learned in my math class. I received a C+ on the first test — my lowest grade ever at that point. But instead of coming to terms with this result and realizing that it was my effort, not the outcome, that counted, I resolved to work twice as hard, and I clawed my way back to receive an A for the semester. I had been dangled by my feet off the cliff of failure, and the near-academic-death experience fueled me with the motivation to earn grades good enough for the Ivy League.

I achieved this goal, but I came to college so unaccustomed to rejection, that even the minor setback of not making a cappella that fall seemed like a crushing blow. I did not expect to receive as high grades in college as I did in high school. I was (somewhat) mentally prepared to see my GPA drop. But, in this realm, Yale has been complicit in my addiction to success. I have been provided with the opportunity to take classes in Groups I, II, III and even IV that have promised to reward me with generously inflated grades. (Although, as Nick Stephanopoulos pointed out (“Do today’s Ivies live up to their reputations?” 2/21), a “gentleman’s B+” average at Yale doesn’t mean much to future employers and graduate schools.) And although an A on an easy midterm has lost most of its thrill, each such “victory” has fueled my success addiction and made me even less likely to take a class in which I might fail. (In other words, there is a reason why I have never taken Intermediate Micro or Macro Economics.)

As a result of our addiction to success, we Yalies are risk-averse in our own peculiar ways. We are eager to spend a summer in Beijing in a Chinese-language immersion program, but we shiver at the thought of taking Math 120 (unless we are Group IV majors). We’ll backpack across Europe with no plans and virtually no cash, but we are unwilling to formally ask that cute guy in section out on a date for fear that he might say no. By not giving ourselves the opportunity to fail in these minor ways, we have avoided developing the skills needed to view failure philosophically and constructively. Perhaps we know how to be tenacious in our pursuit of success, but do we know how to be resilient after failure. And the longer I go without experiencing failure, the scarier it becomes. I also worry that I have not gotten to warm up on mini-failures and am therefore building to one cataclysmic crash.

But I’m not sure what to do to begin detoxing from my success addiction. Writing this column, I knock on wood and hope the Universe (and the University) will not teach me a lesson in failure in the near future. But just to be safe, as you’ll note, I have not included the name of the midterm I took this Monday.

Emily Fenner is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.