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The following excerpt is from Jennifer Cohen’s book, Bigger, better, bolder: live the life you want, not the life you get. Buy it now from Amazon| Barnes & Nobel | Books-a-million | Indiebound | Target | walmart.
“You’ve been told a lie all your life. You’ve been told that being brilliant will make you successful. I tell you the world prefers not the brilliant, but the bold.’
Those are bold words, considering I had the guts to say them to a roomful of some of the brightest people in the world — a group of MIT students, faculty, and administrators. It was November 2021 and I was invited by the organizers of MIT’s annual FAIL! Inspirational resilience conference to speak about how I overcame failure, and how they can too.
Why did MIT invite me? As it turns out, some of their brightest students “fail at failure” – with dire consequences for emotional and mental health – and, as luck would have it, failure is one of my greatest skills. Or I should say, building the resilience to overcome failure is one of my greatest strengths. As I said to the audience that day, “I may have a master’s degree in failure, but I have a PhD to get back on my feet.”
Image credit: Edmund Prieto
If you’ve always been at the top of your class, always praised for your straight A’s, no one is surprised to learn that you’ve been accepted into a prestigious school. In fact, it is expected. Your parents are proud, your teachers are thankful, and your friends are so blasé because of course you got accepted into a top-notch university. You should have won a Nobel Prize for God’s sake for your eleventh grade science project! they all think. At some point, the smartest kid in the class becomes your identity.
There was a kid just like that in my high school (I’ll call him Pete). He sailed through to graduation, probably smarter than many of our teachers. While Pete crushed it without even trying, I had to do my best to get a good C in some classes. Nothing came easy for me, as I said, so I learned how to be resourceful in other ways. I developed perseverance and resilience when I didn’t get the grades I worked so hard for, and I learned to shrug off the shame I felt at being sent to the assistant teacher for tutoring. And all the while I was honing my tenacity and drive to succeed, if only to prove to everyone, including myself, that failure didn’t mean I was a failure. But quitting would have made me a quitter. Pete never had to learn how to get by by being sloppy or learn how to fail without falling apart. His ability to seemingly slide through school and take success for granted probably blunted his resilience. What I was constantly looking for
ways to compensate for my weaknesses to succeed, Pete and brilliant kids like him never learned to persevere after failure.
Straight As is not the answer
When it comes to getting what you want in life, it’s better to be bold than brilliant. That’s not to say that smart people don’t succeed. Or that there are no smart people who are also very cheeky. But most of us aren’t Pete-level intelligent. However, we can all learn how to be bold on the Jennifer level.
When brilliant kids like Pete get accepted into a school like MIT, it means that for the first time their classmates, roommates, and friends are all brilliant too. Some are even more brilliant. Suddenly the Petes are no longer the smartest kids in the room. The same Petes who used to pride themselves on solving a challenging puzzle or a math problem that “average” classmates struggled with are now presented with problems that aren’t quite so simple. They become the struggling Jennifers, only without the resilience and well-developed skills to help them overcome their newly revealed weaknesses. They begin to overanalyze their professors’ questions, overthink the possible solutions to avoid being wrong (because they are smart and know that many things can go wrong), and can become overwhelmed hit by self-doubt.
Many of the high-achieving high school students who experience the shock of academic challenge and competition when they enter college are so terrified of failure that their confidence dwindles as the pressure mounts. This can have a major impact on their emotional and mental well-being, especially if they haven’t naturally developed tools to cope. In other words, they don’t know how to fail, and you have to know how to fail if you want to succeed.
When I didn’t get a good grade in college, it was a little disappointing, but not a disaster. But when a high school freshman who’s straightened out is worried about getting their first C, D, or F, they’re at a greater distance from falling than an average student, and that fall can have serious, even tragic, consequences. . Some of the schools that attract the highest academic talent also have higher than average on-campus suicide rates. In 2015, MIT took this seriously; the administration reduced class loads and increased mental health awareness and services, including programs such as the FAIL! Inspiring Resilience Conference, that’s how I found myself at MIT speaking in front of a room full of brilliant kids like Pete. My job was to help students accept that it’s okay to fail. And I want you to know that too.