Last semester, I ran for YCC president. I lost. The campaign was an exhausting, emotional roller coaster. Being a good candidate is tiring. Crafting a thoughtful image and platform, constantly going door to door — all the while with a smile and positive attitude — wore me down. A balance must be found among being friendly and personable, articulating experience and ideas and also not being annoying and intrusive.
By the end of the campaign, I was drained. And I had lost. I had given my all and I had failed. I’ve never thrown myself into something so fully before, only to fail with no reward for runner-up.
Failure is an awkward thing, especially for Yalies. Before coming to Yale, most of us aren’t very acquainted with failing. Few things we have done previously compare to the purely humbling nature of competing and pursuing activities with such impressive peers. Whenever I talked with someone about the election, or anything else that wasn’t going well, I could feel a hesitation, a slight discomfort that devoured the conversation. Often, my friends and acquaintances seemed like they were just trying to make sure I wasn’t feeling uncomfortable or hurt. It was a nice gesture — after all, it was difficult to talk about — but I was looking for something more than the good old “you’ll feel better next semester” type of response.
This summer, I met a Yale graduate who ran for U.S. Senate in Colorado. He went all out: He used all his savings, resources and energy in an attempt to win. He even refused PAC money. He truly believed in himself and the popularity of his ideals. The election was close, but he failed. When I talked to him, he disguised his wound with self-deprecating humor and a hurt but determined vision of moving forward — not cheerily bouncing back, but pressing on all the same. He impressed me. After suffering through such a loss, he was in the process of picking himself back up. But he was a sad man, with the burden of his failure clearly weighing on him. I could relate.
While couch surfing in Cody, Wyo. on my road trip back to Yale, I met a traveling country musician. Before playing a private concert in the living room, he explained his story. A few years ago, he was a successful businessman, but then he lost it all with the housing crash: his job, his relationships and, in true country singer fashion, even his dog. Although my experience was different, failure offered me the ability to empathize and fully relate. He told me his story with a smile and a laugh; he had gotten sick of feeling sorry for himself. Now he is traveling the country sharing his music, which is inspired by his hardships. He was going on, not despite his failures, but because of them.
Unfortunately, when we don’t talk about pain and failure, our avoidance often goes unchallenged. If we ignore failure, we gloss over some major elements of our stories, identities and characters. My failures in tryouts, interviews, elections and relationships are just as important to who I am as my successes. The darks make the grays and whites brighter. We lose depth if we edit out our failures. They allow us to relate; emotional intelligence and empathy require experience, even if our experiences of failure differ wildly in nature and gravity.
I used to think that although we may not always get what we want, we must, at the very least, get what we deserve. But that isn’t the case either; merit can be subjective. Even if we have the support and sympathy of others, we don’t always get what we pursue.
I am starting to embrace failure — not bounce back but consciously pick myself up. Understanding and making sense of failure takes time, but I’m coming back humbled and craving for more, excited to see what else is in store. We might not always get what we believe we deserve, but we do have the ability to own what we get served. We can embrace our failures as much as we embrace our successes and learn to define ourselves by them as well. Our failures or fear of failing shouldn’t stop us from getting back up again, but we also shouldn’t carry on despite them, as if they never happened. Regardless of whether we’ve just walked onto Old Campus or left years ago, we’ll continue to experience hardship. But to be the best we can be, we should embrace failures. Moving on despite them doesn’t seem to be enough. Failure matters.
Eric Eliasson is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.