Failure and Success

We’ve all been there: the end of a relationship, the bottom of a grade scale, looking back at what’s passed and wondering what went wrong. Looking for someone to blame. And we’ve all had a do-gooder tell us (at least once before) that we’ll get through whatever it is and adversity is actually a good thing; it builds strength. Maybe we are even the person giving this advice. Even if it comes as a great annoyance, this idea that adversity is positive is deeply rooted in truth. J.K. Rowling says it best in the title of her Harvard commencement speech: “The fringe benefits to failure, and the importance of Imagination.” Failure is not something we can easily address and say: you are necessary. I’m glad I have failed. That is, until after the failure has passed and the indirect benefits are recognized.

In his novel The Happiness Hypothesis, notable psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes an entire chapter on the uses of adversity. There are obvious parallels between his findings and the personal experiences J.K. Rowling cites in her speech. Haidt refers to the benefits of adversity as “posttraumatic growth” and outlines three primary areas of growth following an adversity like failure. J.K. Rowling, following her personal failures, found she was stronger than she previously thought. This is the first of Haidt’s areas of growth: facing a challenge reveals hidden abilities thereby changing one’s self concept to that of greater confidence. The second benefit he outlines is that adversities filter relationships, or as J.K. Rowling puts it, “You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.” The third benefit of struggle is that it changes a person’s priorities and philosophies.

To J.K. Rowling, failure was a freeing experience. It resulted in the “stripping away of the inessential” as her greatest fear was realized and still she survived. What doesn’t kill you instead reveals your tenacity and, in Rowling’s case, provided the platform for her to rebuild her life. I see failure as relative. Take for example the high-achieving Harvard students Rowling is addressing. Their level of failure is actually a sign of success to many in the general population. We all want to feel successful, to have a purpose we are striving for and can achieve. That is why we redefine success to fit our own experiences and resources. Those with money and who value education may not feel content with their abilities until they’ve achieved a graduate degree, whereas others without these resources may find success in graduating high school. For example, in Guatemala and other developing countries, graduations of any kind (high school, college) are exceptions, not expectations. The Hedonic Treadmill is a psychological concept that explains this relativity of success. In this concept, all people have a set-point of happiness determined by both their biological predispositions and experiences. As experiences change, people adapt to create a new happiness set-point. An individual who wins the lottery may be excited the first couple of months, but soon they adapt to their wealthy lifestyle and it becomes routine instead of novel. J.K. Rowling says “ultimately, we have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure,” not only because there are many areas of life to consider in regards to the idea of failure, but also because of our tendency to adapt. What you see as success today you may see as a failure tomorrow.

With these ideas in mind, I wonder if we can ever achieve a true level of success or if there will always be more to strive for. However, failure I can define for myself: it is, to some extent, being forgotten. Rowling opens her speech with the assertion she remembers nothing of what her own commencement speaker said. She tries to play this off as a reason she shouldn’t be nervous to give her speech at the beginning, but by the end she is requesting the audience pay attention to and remember specific lessons. I say failure is being forgotten “to some extent” because of the variability of values that prevents us from definitively defining success and failure. We don’t want to be forgotten, but by whom? Our family? Our friends? All those we come in direct contact with? Or do we want global recognition? This is differs between every individual.

Global recognition is almost an innate desire, presumably as a result of a fear of death. J.K. Rowling makes the interesting choice of referring to passed time as expired in her speech, making life seem even shorter than it is as we are all on a direct path towards our expiration date. Those who make a global difference and who are discussed in schools continue to live on, at least to some extent. If people convey our story when we are gone, we can shape lives even after death. Global recognition is also something to be feared because the number of people remembered for positive actions equals the number remembered for negative. Success in opposition to my current definition of failure is not just be being remembered: it is being remembered for what you want to be remembered for. I desire to be remembered by all I come into direct contact with. I see this as proof that I have lived fully, sincerely, and made a difference in how the people around me approach life. I used to desire being remembered only in a positive light, (I still do wish this because I don’t want to hurt other people) but if what I do is viewed as negative by the person I touch and a positive outcome results, I still consider this success.

While success and failure are most often viewed materialistically by contemporary society, I view them as the intangible outcomes of our interactions with others. Short term failures throughout life, like losing a job or making a low income, can be indirectly beneficial in that they help us reassess our values and determined how we want to be remembered by others. J.K. Rowling concludes her speech by quoting Seneca and I reiterate it here: “As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.” The actual length of your life matters not if you play a positive role in the lives of all you interact with.



Perceiving a “Shadow Scholar”

It’s interesting how perceptions can be so easily and completely altered by our previous experiences. When I hear the term “Shadow Scholar,” I am brought back to the best compliment I have ever received: “I didn’t even know you were smart.” Notably, this sentence doesn’t come across as a compliment at first, and the person who said it to me was mortified as soon as it left her mouth, but before she even started explaining herself I was glowing at the true message hidden in her words: I was a humble learner. She was not saying I was unintelligent, (my presence in AP courses and contributions to class discussions made sure of this) but rather, she was praising me for never bragging or flaunting my successes. No one knew the effort I dedicated to my education, that is, until I won the Levine Scholarship at UNCC. You could say that throughout high school, I was a “Shadow Scholar,” flying under the radar, but excelling all the same. However, as I initially stated, experience alters perception. To Ed Dante, author of the paper “The Shadow Scholar” and an essayist for an online website that cranks out papers for students willing to pay, this term refers to the unrecognized genius passing students through the education system by writing assignments for them.

Dante (for the record, a pseudonym. Even now he is an invisible entity creating scholastic writings that elicit conversation) starts this particular essay with a narrative, one he returns to throughout the piece. He received an assignment request from a business student needing a 75-page paper in a week. It is through this narrative Dante gives us insight not only into the life of a shadow scholar, but also the lives of those the scholar interacts with. At times, this piece can be seen as a second person attack against teachers who fail to see their failing students. There are plenty of studies examining cheating on assignments and tests, but aside from downright plagiarism, cheated essays are rarely caught. What is especially distressing about this fact is the demographics impacted. As stereotypes suggest, lazy rich kids are a large portion of the population financing people like Dante. But aside from laziness, legitimate needs are not being met as deficient students and those learning English as a second language are not receiving the aid they need. What gives the author of cheating essays the right to criticize the school system seeing as he is enabling this form of cheating? He acknowledges that he is “the bad guy” and claims to be in the process of quitting his work for the company.

What Dante doesn’t really touch on is WHY cheating in the way he enables is unfair. There is the cliché that when you cheat, you are only cheating yourself. This isn’t true. When you are cheating, you are stealing. You are stealing from the individual who actually does your work. You are stealing from other students who truthfully put effort into their own work. Dante has written countless forms of essays, but the one that strikes me as the most unfair is application essays. A student who works hard and deserves to be chosen for an opportunity isn’t because someone plays another’s work off as their own. These cheaters don’t earn their spot, the shadow scholar behind them does. Those who cheat often do not see the trouble they cause, as can be seen by seminary students who also religiously (haha get it?) use this “resource.” “Shadow Scholar” may be a term of praise in reference to humility, or it may reference a whole underground network of enabled cheating, depending on how we perceive it.

Why 30 is not the new 20

In her Ted Talk “Why 30 is not the new 20,” psychologist Meg Jay argues young adults are doing themselves a developmental disservice by viewing their 20’s as a time of purposeless exploration. Jay makes  the following claims and instructions throughout her presentation:

  • 80% of life’s defining moments occur before the age of 35.
  • A person’s 20’s are now seen by some researchers as an extended adolescence.
  • 20-somethings need identity capital (meaningful experience such as internships or work).
  • Personality changes more in the 20’s than in any other developmental stage (excluding ages 0-5).
  • Don’t limit yourself with a small friend group; rather, make many weak ties to increase opportunities.
  • Be as “intentional with love as you are with work.”
  • “Claim your adulthood.”

Jay’s indirect and underlying message is that instead of pushing back developmental milestones with greater longevity, we as humans should be striving to achieve ever higher levels of development. With more time, we should be searching for a greater sense of self and looking to larger outside issues we wouldn’t ordinarily have time to address, instead of killing time.

One argument against calling 30’s the new 20’s Jay doesn’t mention is that regardless of the fact that humans have more time, we are still 20-somethings only once. Our time is still limited. We can’t compare the time we have to the time past generations had as extra because it is the norm for our generation. Time is not a matter for comparison: it is a gift we should actively utilize to achieve ever higher goals.

Jonathan Haidt is another notable psychologist who argues the 20s are developmentally essential.In his novel The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt mentions an adversity sweet spot during early adulthood (20s) in which people experience the most growth following adversity. For example, Haidt cites longitudinal studies of young people during World War II and The Great Depression. Those who were in their 20’s when they first experienced strong adversity like this were more likely to bounce back and contribute to society following the adversity than people who were 30 or older facing the same trauma.

The 20’s mark a vital period of growth. Instead of avoiding the pressures they entail, Meg Jay encourages 20-somethings to “claim your adulthood.”



Without Fail

The only time I have ever seen my dad cry was when I was seven years old. He came into my bedroom one night to find me crying beneath the covers. “What’s wrong?” he asked, and I told him: I was scared of my grandad, his father, dying. He too began to cry. I am struck by this memory, not only because of the humanization of my dad, but also because I understood and feared the uncertainty that accompanies death even at that young age. The question is: what if death was not the end? Without the fear of failure, I would apply myself to the task of proving that “life after death” really exists. The trending phrase “YOLO” and the coverage of multiple police shootings in the news show the awareness and emphasis our nation places on mortality. Humans generally fear the unknown (which explains tensions between different racial groups, sexual orientations, and economic classes), the greatest unknown being the fear of death. Despite their current importance to our culture, the disparities preventing equality and resulting in violence across our nation are temporary. Across the globe, humanity suffers the fear and repercussions of loss.

We find hope in unexpected places. I took this picture “of God” on the campus of UNCC.

When I was in the fifth grade, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. As a result, the fear of the unknown I experienced at the age of seven resurfaced. Then at the age of seventeen, a close friend of my older sister got into a car accident that killed her younger brother. He was my age. Whether it’s from old age, disease, or an accident, death is inevitable. Why, then, would I not try to prevent death with an infallible task? As I have witnessed in my own life, and as I have learned through outside influences, too many causes of death exist to address them all in one fell swoop. In addition, unknown implications accompany this theoretical task. In a world without death, humanity would be forced to implement a moratorium on new birth to conserve resources and avoid overpopulation; this would eventually lead to a stagnation of inventions and innovations as eventually those who occupied the Earth would max out the limits of their imaginations. Furthermore, “curing death” would result in what could be considered the worst outcome, eternal suffering: without death, hunger would remain, but without consequence, criminals could roam for eternity, and the losses previously experienced before the end of death would continue to be felt. The sufferings of life eventually make death a necessary experience. Despite its necessity, death remains a frightening and painful experience to contemplate and eventually endure.

What could alleviate the pain of loss and decrease the fear of death without the possible negative outcomes aforementioned would be definitive knowledge of what comes next. Though methods of achieving this goal are currently a matter of science fiction, the results can easily be imagined. Whether it proves to be Heaven, reincarnation, a period of rest, or another unimaginable state, understanding could provide direction for those still alive on Earth. Not only would humanity be comforted in the knowledge of the fate of their loved ones, they would also gain the knowledge needed to achieve this fate for themselves.

Without the fear of failure, I would discover what lies beyond death. What would you try if you knew you could not fail?



Walking, Writing, (and Reading)

When thinking about reading, I imagine a smaller version of myself literally traversing the page as the writer creates a pace and path for me to follow. Both the shape and size of words act as physical boundaries for my imagined self to navigate. I can walk slowly along rolling vowels and stretching adjectives, or I can allow my character to slip between the spaces separating words as I skim a page. I can sprint with the writer, unconscious of their word choice as ideas propel me forward. I can -pause- on a word or idea, examining literal and intended meanings, allowing my mental state to explore the sensory implications of letters conjoined. Reading is a journey guided by the writer; writing is likewise a guided journey, a journey of sensory stimulation created by physical movement.

Walking impacts thought clarity, as proven in experiments conducted by Stanford, the University of South Carolina, and as I have seen in my own personal experiences. The two studies show that on average, the pace and setting of movement impacts a person’s ability to solve creative problems. Walking engages and distracts the unconscious mind allowing a writer to explore his/her conscious, intentional thoughts. Although I was unaware of the proven effects of walking on thinking and therefore writing until recently, I would take a walk before every standardized test I took in high school. Walking gave me an outlet for my physical energy so my mental energy could take precedence. In writing tests specifically, walking allowed me to gather my thoughts as well as expand my repertoire of sensory comparisons in my work. Good writers are partially good because of their ability to make and communicate physical observations in relation to emotional experiences. Walking guides writing as writing guides reading: it provides the tools for the activity.


“No One Writes Alone”?

While I understand the intent behind the title “No One Writes Alone,” I do not agree with the message. Writing is a solitary activity; it is finding a comfortable space, maybe listening to music, maybe not, exploring thoughts in a depth greater than one is capable of in speech because written thoughts are recorded, can be elaborated on, and returned to. Even peer reviewing, at least as it is taught in schools, is a solitary effort. Students take a piece home where they find a familiar space, maybe listen to music, maybe not, and explore the work before them according to their own personal thoughts, opinions, and backgrounds. They make comments or corrections on the paper, which is not always heeded by the original writer. Peer reviewing enables students to explore different styles of works and learn through reading, but writing itself is the task of one person alone. Even in the instance of coauthors, writings are created separately before being combined. Writing is solitary because thinking is solitary; the two are simply a reflection of each other where one has physical representation and the other does not.

Discussing writing face-to-face is a way to explore the writing process amongst multiple people. This does not negate the previous assertion that writing itself is between the writer and page alone. Instead, it is to say that speech conveys thoughts between writer and peer directly. In discussion, both sides are actively attuned to the writing and the thoughts of their conversation partner. In our own peer reviewing groups for the extended inquiry project, I was nervous for this discussion process. Writing is an extension of oneself; to critique it is essentially to critique another person (or at least one aspect of them.) My nerves were unfounded, but based in experience. I greatly enjoy the editing process and tend to leave an exorbitant number of comments on the work of others. Previously, this has been both appreciated and an offense to my peers. I was nervous to see which way this conversation went: it was appreciated.

Writing itself is accomplished alone, but I concede that discussing writing is a social act. The social task greatly improves the antisocial one. Maybe this title isn’t saying that writing itself is a collaborative effort, but rather, that the writing process should be.


“Dude. I wrecked my car. High Five.”

The speaker is a boy, although he insists he is a man, named Johnny. He is a quintessential beach bum, enjoying surfing and beers around bonfires with babes flitting around in bikinis. The four Bs. He is at one such bonfire when, for whatever primal reason teenagers are driven by, he decides to race his truck. Beers, high speeds, and winding roads, oh my. Are you surprised that as Johnny sloppily handles the car, he doesn’t notice the curve in the road ahead? That he keeps driving even when branches start scrabbling to hold him back, slow him down, save his life? They do. His car is totaled, but what does that really matter when adrenaline is adding a whole new level to the buzz he’s been riding all night?

The speaker addresses the best friend, Mark. Mark won’t return the high five. Where Johnny is light in every sense of the word- blonde hair, whimsical attitude- Mark is dark. And sensible. As it is, he needs to be sensible for many people in his life. Johnny, his older sister facing an upcoming court date, the younger brother he practically raised. He is aware of the trouble Johnny has gotten himself into, even though Johnny himself is not. Why does Mark stay with Johnny? I don’t know, and neither does he I suspect. Mark is sitting on a log by the bonfire, watching flames kiss each other the way the two girls behind him do.

“Dude. You hear me?” Johnny inquires, if you can call his drunken slur an inquiry at all. But Mark understands. He sighs and stands, resigned to another night of taking care of others. But at the back of his mind he wonders how long he can put others before himself? How long until they realize they’ve pushed him too far. Until he’s at the top of the business world, high above them as their boss, a success who escaped the town currently smothering him. Or high above them, momentarily, as he falls forward from the highest building in sight? No tree branches scrabble to slow him. Only his own sensible thoughts. Maybe they’ll be enough.