The Possibilities in Failure


by Alex Shapanka

College is one giant crossroads. Every decision we make has far-reaching consequences, developing our interests, habits and personalities. Not every choice is easy, so we seek counsel. We talk to seniors about worthwhile courses and professors. We speak to the Career Center and professionals about our intended career path. But why are we asking in the first place?

Fear of failure. We as Duke students like to do well and hate it when we don’t. We take every precaution to guarantee we achieve. We solicit advice from others to confirm our decisions, as if third party validation were a guarantor of success.

Whether it’s a trivial or pivotal life moment, ask for guidance but recognize it as such. Your friends and family have had experiences that can offer you valuable insight into your own situation. I would never have chosen to be a history major without a serious conversation with my oldest brother about the purpose of a college education. He helped me realize that I should study something I found engaging rather than sensible. My brother never explicitly told me what to do, though I asked him to pick for me. Letting him choose would have been easier than figuring out what I wanted. He had gone through college and already had an answer. I, however, was the one who had to go to the registrar’s office to hand in the forms. The decision was mine to make.

We try desperately to limit our failure by doing what is sensible. Many of us even try to emulate individuals who have ‘succeeded.’ Their journey becomes an implicit form of advice for our own lives. We scrutinize their experiences as if they hide the formula to ‘success.’ Duke students like to follow the footsteps of those who came before them out of fear of standing on shaky ground. In doing so, we defer our choices to the judgment of others.

The other day the Chronicle published a poignant article about students’ post-graduation plans. It said the majority of Dukies go into law, medicine, finance or consulting, but it neglected to speculate why. I argue their popularity is connected to their conventionalism. We know those careers tend to provide large salaries and stability – at least in the sense that you learn ‘marketable skills’ to start a career with respect to finance and consulting. They’re safe, providing a semi-clear picture of the road ahead. Our future. 

Listen to what others have to say. In fact, seek out their counsel, but view it as a self-help book, not as an answer. Others can provide you with a perspective, allowing you to make a more informed decision. They show you parts of a path that lies before you. But in the end, do whatever compels you, not what you think you should do. Even if it means blindly following a path whose direction is uncertain. Open yourself up to the possibility of failing.