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How to Fail: Part 1 by Selam G. '18

Dealing with failure and trying to move past it.

You know what I thought I was good at after getting into MIT? You know what I thought was my shining glory, my thing to be proud of, the thing I would definitely do well at even at this really hard institution?


It might sound a little weird, but I came here certain that if there was one thing I was prepared better than anyone to do, it was to fail. I could not say that I am particularly good at math, or exceptional at chemistry or biology, or a physics genius when compared to my classmates. In fact, the only thing in school I have ever been “naturally” good at is English.

Being good at failing means not being phased by it, and knowing how not to have a breakdown. It means being able to look at failure constructively, no matter how bad it is, picking out whatever there is to learn from the situation and moving on. After high school, I felt like I had this process down.

Although I was very excited and happy when I first came to campus here at the Institvte, I was also very emotional about leaving home, and the imposter syndrome began right away. Sometimes I think it might have even started before I got here. I heard a lot about people who tested out of a lot of our required courses and were already taking courses in their majors. I went to the student talks that we have at orientation, and one of the speakers asked, “How many of you thought high school was easy?” About two thirds of the auditorium raised their hands. I sat there and felt my stomach sink. Wait, really? High school was easy for all these people?

I quickly realized during first semester that actually, my high school was just pretty hard. I had 6 or 7 B’s on my transcript applying to MIT. I went to an ordinary public school, and they prepared me very well, and I am both grateful and proud. Most importantly, my high school taught me how to fail. All those B’s (okay, B’s are really not that bad, but high school me had thought so) taught me that failing has a process, like anything else. You get up. You move on with your life. You never take it personally. You separate yourself emotionally from your school and work achievements.

I talked to a lot of people whenever I was sad about my failures in high school, and I found out there are tons and tons of paths to success. People often go to community college or a junior college their first two years, for example, and do very well. In fact, I know a transfer student at MIT who did exactly that, and now he’s studying quantum mechanics.

One good success story is Edward Snowden. Regardless of your opinion of him, he is at least definitely one of the best in his field–that’s how he got his job in government, which was very prestigious. Yet, he never completed much higher education. I think he may hold some sort of Associates’ Degree, from a community college*.

So I became adept at failing, and failing repeatedly. Failure and suffering–it’s difficult to see these things as positive, but it changes your perspective on life when you do.**

All this is of course a lot easier said than done.

First semester at MIT was pretty great, because we were all on pass no record. I passed all my classes, and had fun learning and getting to know the place.

Then second semester came.

I thought I would be okay if I did badly. I thought I was not like the valedictorians and took-classes-at-their-nearest-college folks that were some of my classmates. I was never within the top ten or twenty in my high school. I am not used to being at the top nor do I think I have to be there. I could fail better than anyone–mostly because, I thought, I had already. Failure is nothing new to me, and, most importantly, if I failed, it would not cripple me–it just meant I needed to fix some odds and ends here and there, and then I would grow and become better.

But oooohhhhhhhh man. That first round of midterms. I have never done so horribly, so atrociously on any exam in my life. I got a beautiful 36% on my first 6.01 exam, that was fantabulous***.

Of course, it didn’t help that Everything In The World Was Happening during February and March. There were a lot of emotional things going on at MIT, and in my own personal life, and we had our flurry of midterms, and, in general, it was just a bad time. I started asking myself the “why was I admitted here?” question in a very bad way. Everyone was ready for spring break. Since I was feeling bad, I let myself be upset about Everything, which was Happening. I did some crying, and some ranting, and some generally being angry and cursing and IHTFP, and making jokes in bad taste.

Spring break felt more like a gasp for breath than a vacation. I spent time with my family, and I longboarded along the Platte River, and the weather was beautiful. Home was very good–I remembered especially all the various very successful people I knew there, who all found their paths in very different ways. They came from nothing, and still had pretty much nothing for a while. But they figured it out anyway.

I have lived and belonged in a very caring community in Denver all my life. I looked at all the little ones, who are where I was maybe a decade ago. They are still tender and dreaming big dreams, but for the moment, they’re happy to just run around and play.

I came back with a fiery analytical vigor. I planned on tearing this place apart to find out what I did wrong, and exactly what I needed to do to avoid the same mistakes. Most importantly, this did not break me–although I at times felt like it could. I am not yet bitter or distant. I still love MIT–although now I’ve realized it shows a lot of tough love, and like all institutions, it has several aspects that could be better. I was worried at one point that I would grow to hate it, like some people had actually said they had. But I do not.

(Part 2 coming next week!)

Edit: Read part 2 here!



*I very strongly believe in community college. Community colleges are amazing. They are a great example of affordable education that’s honestly often very good quality. I think there are a lot of people who can do very well at community colleges. At places like that, if you have the right attitude, you could grow and learn just as much as at MIT. I really admire people who, instead of thinking negatively of their environment or “should’ve” and “could’ve”, accomplish incredible things by working hard right where they are. You can say this or that school is better in this or that department or this or that way, but you can never say this person is better or smarter than any other. People will surprise you.

**In fact, there’s this cool TED talk about how seeing stress as good invokes a physical response in your body more like when you exercise or laugh rather than when you are facing terrible danger.

***I JUST FOUND OUT THIS ACTUALLY IS A WORD. Google it. Its realness takes away a bit of its charm… :(