Why you should care
Because you’ve been looking for a way to dispense with the FOMO.
Anna Nordberg is a writer who lives in San Francisco.
With back-to-school season upon us once again, the media is awash with advice: how to pick a major, embrace your experience, become the person you were meant to be. I appreciate the optimism of it all, and remember the euphoria of opening my course guide for the first time and seeing every course imaginable listed, even the ones wildly unsuitable to me, like organic chemistry and intro German. Pure opportunity, everywhere you looked.
Which is why one of the most valuable things I learned at college comes as a surprise. It’s certainly not the stuff of glossy brochures. College taught me everything I was bad at.
The first weeks were a misty-eyed blur. Night after night, my classmates and I went to meetings and mixers about how to wring every last drop of value from our undergrad educations. Every singing group and news publication and team courted you, acting like it wanted you to join. But swiftly and without judgment, those early weeks showed me that passion for music was not the same as talent. That I was bad at all sports except for intramural Ping-Pong. And that, to put it as kindly as possible, it was naive to wander into a premed genetics course with some charming notions of Mendel and his pea garden, and think I could get by without taking the lab because I liked biology in high school.
I got a 54 on my first exam. A savvier person would have dropped the course, but the idea never occurred to me. Instead, I spent the rest of the semester working like a dog to get a C. My older brother, who had long put up with my perfectionism and grade obsession, called me to say, “Now that you’ve gotten a C, I can stop worrying about you.”
My brother was right; that first-semester flop changed me. First off, it turned out that getting a C wasn’t as horrible as I had imagined. Second, I decided it was a sign and doubled down on the things I loved the most — reading novels and histories, mostly by dead people. This might have looked like defeat; it didn’t feel like one. I knew, instinctively, when I sat down to my final genetics exam with all those other students who did want to be doctors and scientists, that I didn’t. If I was going to fail, I’d rather fail doing something else.
There’s a lot of talk that today’s kids, the so-called snowflake generation, are not equipped to handle setbacks, that they have no preparation for failure. Released from the hothouse of overpraise that was their childhood, they fall to pieces when they realize they aren’t good at everything. There have been so many articles about this, in fact, that I wonder if we shouldn’t worry less about overpraised kids heading off to college and more about helping disadvantaged kids actually get to college, or to graduate without soul-sucking debt. But it suffices to say that overcoming failure is key to growing up, its character-building qualities so vital that Silicon Valley practically requires them.
And failure isn’t just an opportunity to pick yourself up and dust yourself off. It’s a chance to re-evaluate. In all the talk of doors opening and horizons expanding, no one mentions that part of adulthood is knowing what doors to close. I tried to describe this theory to a friend, and he was silent for a moment. “Yes, it’s a bit of a European outlook,” he said. A pause. “Maybe even Soviet.”
OK, yikes. Obviously I didn’t make my case very well, so let me be clear: Closing doors is not the same as letting your spirit be crushed, or accepting your lot, or resigning yourself to being a cog in the wheel of greatness, which does indeed sound like something Stalin might want. But for a lot of freshmen, launched out of the warm fishbowl of high school, the competitiveness of college comes as a shock. My advice? Turn into that shock and try to figure out what it means. Maybe it’s a chance to abandon one path for another.
I walked away from some of the things I was bad at; I worked like a crazy person to improve others. My sophomore year, a feckless, overpraising article I wrote about a fellow student’s book got torn to shreds, in a way that would send today’s campus sensitivity police running for the barricades. It was awful, but I survived, my ego fragile as a moth. Three months later, I published something else.
College teaches you what kind of failure you have the stomach for. It also helps you decide which dreams to let go of, regardless of what your parents or your former high school self imagined. Shut enough doors, and the right one opens.