For What it’s Worth: facing failure amid accomplishment

Teddy Roosevelt refused to speak, but released a statement to the press after his son died in World War I. He didn’t talk about remorse, or regret or longing, but about risk. In the few lines that he presented, Roosevelt emphasized the importance of his son’s actions in placing himself in the arena. His closing words echoed that “if he fails, he at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

It seems a simple concept, doesn’t it? Play the game; don’t stand on the sidelines. Ask the girl out rather than wondering what could’ve been. Risk, dare greatly. Yet it’s not so easy, and I had two instances this week that at least tested my own personal resolve.

The first involved law school, which seems fairly silly. This Saturday, along with 50 of my closest friends, I will take the LSAT. This test will go a long way in determining where I will go to law school and, by extension, where and how I will practice law. Midway through the week, though, I’d almost convinced myself that it would be better to put off the test until December so I could better prepare.

Never mind that I’d spent the last eight weeks studying daily, preparing for this. The simple fact is that I was, and to a certain extent still am, afraid of failing. I’ve set the bar fairly high for myself and I keep wondering what happens if I don’t reach those goals I’ve set. What does that say about me as a person? It took some doing, but I convinced myself that I would continue and deal with it as best I could.

The second instance was more troubling. I was with my cross country team, racing at Tufts. About 3.5 miles in, another member of our team, someone I’d never lost to, came on my shoulder and accelerated past me. I tried to go with him and in the process stepped in a small ditch, turning my knee a little. It wasn’t anything serious, and I knew that immediately, but I took the excuse anyway. I made it out in my mind to be worse than it was and instead of racing my teammate to the finish, I took the easy way out. Losing to that teammate was the same as failure in my mind and I couldn’t deal with that very real likelihood. I think the difficult thing for me is that three years ago this never would’ve happened. I reveled in competition, looking for any chance to test myself, no matter the possibility of failure. To be sure, in high school, like most of us on campus, I didn’t fail all that often. Yet when faced with it I accepted it without question.

As we proceed further in life, we acquire a great deal more in terms of accomplishments, responsibilities and reputation. Sometimes it feels that the concept of success and failure involves risking all that we’ve accomplished. If I do poorly on the LSAT, does it mean that anything I’ve done previously is invalidated? If I run a lousy race, does it mean that I never ran fast? Clearly not, but it can feel that way.

Williams is a community of high achievers, people who drive themselves to do well, and, therefore, I imagine that there must be others who feel this pressure as well. Will people think less of me if I don’t perform up to a certain standard all the time?

I don’t know the answers to most of these questions, but I’ve given them a lot of thought. First, failure is a personal matter. I am accountable only to myself for my own success and failure, and Saturday, by flinching when faced with defeat, I only exacerbated that failure, rather than minimizing it. Second, we may risk failure, but the costs of defeat are nowhere near as high as we think them and the rewards of success are far greater than we can imagine. I can lose once in a while, knowing the great things that I can still achieve.

Finally, removing one’s self from competition doesn’t allow one to avoid failure; it prevents success. The quickest way to lose is to take yourself out of the game. I’d forgotten all of this and I’m trying to regain the knowledge. I’m not sure it’s something that can be taught, but I’m hoping that what was once there can be found again. Two things are for sure though: one, I didn’t avoid losing to anyone on Saturday, I lost, no matter the excuses I may have tried to make. That teammate beat me by a far greater margin than if I’d gutted it out. And two, it won’t come so easy the next time.