Taekman: An ode to first-year failure

People say all sorts of things before beginning college, often that it is supposed to be the best four years of your life. Perhaps you’ll make lifelong friends and gain independence from your overbearing parents. Maybe you’ll really figure out who you are and what you want to do with yourself. Those statements hold true, for the most part.

But what no one tells you is that your first year in college goes so fast. No one tells you that everything is going to come at you all at once. Academics, events, responsibilities, life choices and more—they’ll throw themselves at you, and you’re probably not going to successfully catch all of them.

When giving first-year advice, people tend to neglect to tell you that you’re probably going to fail at something—more than a few times, at that. And failure is a foreign concept to many of us. “Failure” is the kid that failed the class, the kid that didn’t make it through auditions, the kid that didn’t get the job or didn’t maintain a social life.

Most of us haven’t been that kid. At least, not yet. Case Western Reserve University prides itself on a student body of excellence—the failure we’ve experienced, we’ve been able to bounce back from. There’s no bad grade we couldn’t talk ourselves out of, no second attempt that has gone unheeded. There has always been another option.

Subsequently, when we do experience sheer, unadulterated failure, it feels like the end. Your life is over. You won’t get your degree, you won’t get that job you want, you’re bad at what you thought you were good at and it’s time to quit.

What I wish someone had told me before coming to school is that college is a time to fail. We all joke about taking losses, but it hurts. Bombing a test, failing a class, ruining a friendship or not getting a job never really feels normal. Failing something and knowing that there’s no coming back from it is undoubtedly a horrible feeling. You start playing mind games with yourself: if only I had done this, if only I hadn’t gone to that, if only I had tried harder.

But the big college lesson that no one talks about is how failure is normal.

A college experience with no setbacks would defeat the purpose of college as a warmup for adult life. Life, after all, is full of leaps—and you’re not always going to land them perfectly. A college experience that hands you everything you want with no struggle would be a waste of tuition. Failure is a critical and common part of the human experience, and not dealing with at least a marginal amount of it leaves you a maladjusted adult.

I get it: society expects perfection from us. A flawless grade point average. An abundant list of extracurriculars. A sparkling record of community service. A flourishing social life. All of this, while taking classes and leaving time to eat, sleep and breathe.

It just isn’t possible. There aren’t enough hours in the day; there isn’t enough of you to go around. College is about picking your battles and not falling apart completely when something else subsequently suffers. You aren’t always going to be perfect and that’s okay.

So: a message to past me. A message to incoming those like me in the Class of 2021.

You’re going to fail. Repeatedly. But don’t worry. It’s normal.

You don’t have to be perfect—you just have to do your best.

Sarah Taekman is a first-year that is more than a little scared that she’s almost a second-year.