The other “F” word
Nobody likes failure. But it’s something that everyone experiences—even you. The good news: You can turn a big mistake or rejection into something better. Don’t believe us? Read how these three teens overcame the other “F” word.
Story by Sarah Moreland
Illustrations by Linzie Hunter
Adora Svitak was confident. She had put months of work into her early admission application to Stanford University. She’d written (and rewritten) her CommonApp essay 11 times to make sure it was perfect. She’d taken 10 Advanced Placement tests by the end of her senior year. And she’d
persevered through an extra study course for math—her least favorite subject—to improve her SAT scores. When she finally pushed the “Submit” button, the Washington teen was confident she would be in the six percent of applicants who would step onto Stanford’s campus as part of the Class of 2018.
But during a debate tournament in December, when she pulled out her smartphone to check her email before walking into her next round, she stared numbly at a response she wasn’t expecting. She wasn’t going to become a Stanford University cardinal.
“That was the closest I’ve ever been to crying in public,” Svitak says.
The rejection was a surprise to Svitak—and to her debate teammates. Her accomplishments included publishing her first book at seven years old, giving her first TEDx talk at 12 and speaking to audiences all over the United States. She’d been to Yale and Columbia universities and SXSW (South by Southwest), the famous music, film and interactive conference in Austin, Texas. She’d even made a television appearance on “Good Morning America.”
“You can choose what failure means to you—and you also get to choose whether failure keeps you down or makes you stronger.”
None of that seemed to matter when she read that email from Stanford. And she had to explain to her teammates that, no, she wouldn’t be going to the college she’d talked and dreamed about so much.
Instead, she was left with an empty feeling. “What do I do now?” she thought.
IT’S ALL UP TO YOU
Failure isn’t something we like talking about, especially if it’s a personal failure. It’s a safe assumption to say we’ve been taught that failure is bad. But the real question is: What does failure mean to you? Maybe failure means not getting a spot on the soccer team or cheerleading squad. Maybe it’s getting rejected—by text message—after asking out the cute kid who sits next to you in your biology lab. Or maybe it’s getting anything less than an A on a test.
You can choose what failure means to you. You also get to choose whether failure keeps you down or makes you stronger.
In Svitak’s case, not being accepted into her dream college wasn’t the end of the world. It helped her narrow down her options, which led her to a different college: the University of California, Berkeley. After only two campus visits, she fell in love with the university—and came home with Cal spirit wear, campus fliers and excitement to join as many of Berkeley’s clubs as possible.
“I realized after an intensely stressful college application process that really it all does turn out all right in the end,” she says. “Your school experience, like anything, is what you make of it. Sometimes after a failure, you can expect nothing and, in the end, get everything you wanted. That was the case for me.”
It was the case for Maddie Downs too. A member of the Pike High School Key Club in Indianapolis and a one-time Indiana District Key Club governor, Downs did what many other Key Clubbers—maybe even you—have done: She ran for an elected position. But her race was the most nervewracking of all: Key Club International president, which meant campaigning in front of more than 1,600 Key Clubbers at the 2013 Key Club International convention in Washington, D.C.
She’d worked on her speechwriting skills and asked her district’s leaders to quiz her on possible caucus questions, but even with all of that preparation, she was nervous when the first round of voting began. All she could do was sit and wait for what seemed like forever as the ballot counters tallied the votes.
Finally, the results were in. Downs was cut from the final race for the Key Club presidency, even with a strong platform that included a communications plan, fundraising ideas for The Eliminate Project and additional training for club advisors.
FROM REGRETS AND FAILURE I ARISE
The loss could’ve bummed her out for the rest of the convention, but she turned to her friends, who had supported her every step of the way.
“They came to my room, and we danced to songs we didn’t even know the words to,” she says. “It was nice to see them still there for me, even though I wasn’t a ‘superstar’ anymore. If they hadn’t been there, I would’ve moped in my room for awhile. They took my mind off of it and let me have fun.”
And Downs continued to have fun, even while watching Capital District’s Raeford Penny take center stage to be inducted as the 2013–14 Key Club International president. She made memories with friends on the trip back home and continued her Key Club journey in a different role: as chairwoman for the Indiana District’s annual convention. Losing the election was actually a good thing, she says.
“I think it made me more willing to take chances,” Downs says. “You never know what the outcome will be unless you take a chance. If I would’ve been president, I wouldn’t have become the district convention chair and gotten close with a different (Indiana District) board. And I wouldn’t have spent as much time with family and friends here as I did.”
And that’s important to her, especially before she moves more than 1,000 miles away to start her college career at the University of Houston this year. She treasures all of the experiences she’s had—not only with her loved ones, but also the one she had at the convention. “Don’t think of it as losing,” she says. “Think about the experience. For me, it was a good experience until that small moment where I realized I didn’t win. Look at what you put into it rather than what came out at the end.”
FAILURE AS A SIGN
When we don’t meet certain expectations, we often blame ourselves. Maybe we weren’t good enough. Funny enough. Smart enough. But sometimes “failing” is actually a good thing. It shows you something isn’t working—and helps you find another solution.
John Rebein knew something was off. The Leawood, Kansas, teen often nodded off to sleep during his classes. And when he was awake, he had trouble focusing on assignments. Yet he had no problem staying awake and focusing while talking with his friends or checking his smartphone.
“Sometimes, John would cry, because he couldn’t get himself to focus,” his brother, Will Rebein, says.
Things were definitely not all right when John Rebein’s GPA dipped to a 2.7. He figured his exhaustion and trouble focusing were mostly because of his daily schedule, which started super early—at 4:35 a.m.—for swim practice.
But a consultation with his doctor showed it was something more: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Once he started taking medication, his symptoms improved. He could focus again.
“Taking that medicine took that energy I had for the social aspect of my life and put it in the classroom,” he says.
The scare of possibly failing school led him not only to medication he needed but also to bigger goals for himself. Rebein, who was a sophomore at the time, knew he needed to do more to pull his grades up. He longed for a change—a different experience than the one he was having at the big public school he attended in suburban Kansas City. He was interested in Rockhurst High School, a small, private, all-boys school in Kansas City, Missouri. But his parents didn’t want to foot the bill. They hadn’t done it for his brother, Will, so why should they do it for him? Besides, Blue Valley North, the high school in his district, was a good school.
Rebein wasn’t OK with his parents’ decision, so he made a deal with his dad: If John covered half of the tuition cost, he could make the switch. So Rebein started his own lawn care business and raised US$10,000 for tuition.
His new school provided him the discipline he needed to get his grades up, join the National Honor Society and even serve as class vice president.
“It was like a night-and-day difference,” he says. “Junior year, my classes were twice as hard as before, and I earned a 4.1 or 4.2 GPA. It was exactly what I needed. It got me thinking about what was going on outside of school, too. It was definitely a change for the better.”
A change Rebein wouldn’t have been able to make if he had let himself feel defeated. Instead, he took charge and turned what seemed like a failure into motivation to work harder.
“You’ve just gotta look around and find some way to appreciate what’s going on,” he says. “You always have options.”
THE PRATFALL EFFECT
There’s more good news for people who are anxious about making mistakes. Studies have discovered a weird social phenomenon called the “Pratfall effect.” If someone who’s usually successful makes a mistake, other people will actually like them more, not less.
“In other words, people already respect you,” Adora Svitak says. “You’re allowed to be human, and in fact, it’ll make them love you more. Realizing that has given me less fear of failure.”
In an ironic twist, Svitak learned about the Pratfall effect—something she would need for her Stanford rejection and life beyond it—in her psychology class, one of the many AP courses she took to prepare herself for her dream college.
Now, months after receiving Stanford’s rejection email, she’s keeping that in mind. As Svitak starts her journey as a Berkeley bear, she’s also starting a new journey in changing her perception of failure. It isn’t about letting someone else (such as an anonymous YouTube user who posts negative comments about her speeches) define her successes and failures for her, she says.
“I’m trying to move toward a different definition of failure: the feeling I get when I say I’ll run three miles and I only run one, or if I don’t go at all,” she says. “Failure should really be about not meeting our own goals and our own expectations, (or) not trying. It shouldn’t be about other folks.”
Social media and the “F” word
There’s no doubt that losing a big Key Club election or getting less than an A on a test can be disappointing. But what about failure in the social media world?
To many people, not getting enough retweets or likes seems like a real measurement of failure. Few likes on an Instagram selfie might make you feel like you’re not attractive enough. No retweets on Twitter might imply that no one believes you’re clever.
“We’re able to instantly compare ourselves with others through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and other social networks,” says Elizabeth Gerber, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Northwestern University. “We’re much more aware of what’s going on with each other minute by minute. It’s much more obvious if you don’t succeed in some way.”
So what can you do to avoid social media “failure”?
Post for the right reasons. It’s not easy to predict what will go viral, so save yourself some stress and upload things for a different reason. For example, post photos and messages that will give new followers a better idea of who you are, what you like and what you stand for. If it winds up on Buzzfeed, awesome! If not, you’re still cool to us.
Think about your own habits. Do you always double-tap every interesting Instagram photo in your feed? Probably not. But that’s not to say you didn’t enjoy seeing them. It’s the same for your followers.
Take your talents elsewhere. Sometimes it’s easy to get overwhelmed with how much stuff is out in the digital world. Stop competing with millions of other people and share your photos and ideas with your friends in person.
“Failures should really be about not meeting our own goals and our own expectations, (or) not trying. It shouldn’t be about other folks”