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It’s OK to Fail
It’s not often that a university president tells students it’s OK to fail. But Bentley President Alison Davis-Blake believes that failure is an important shaper of success. “Failure, properly managed, is one of the best learning experiences you can ever have.”
The message was part of an event at which Bentley faculty, staff and alumni shared their personal experiences of failure. “I’ve learned way more from my failures than from my successes,” Davis-Blake said. “Failure gets our attention and if we allow ourselves to really think about why we failed and what we could do differently next time, that learning is going to stay with us.”
The panel discussion, held in Bentley’s Wilder Auditorium, featured stories of personal failure from four panelists and challenged the audience to match each story to a panelist. It was a timely event, as stories of “snowplow” parents who try and keep their children from failing by removing all obstacles in their path have been prominent in the news. The event opened a dialogue that can be tough in higher education, where competition runs high among students.
“There is so much competition on college campuses, even among friends,” said Bentley Counseling Center Director Peter Forkner. “Students often compete with their friends and roommates for the same positions on an athletic team, the same internships, the same jobs. So there's this pressure to seem perfect all the time and if you fail at something or if you're struggling, that creates more anxiety.”
Forkner said there’s a balance when it comes to talking about failure. “There's this battle between acknowledging that failure is sometimes painful or embarrassing—something that we don't want to occur—while acknowledging that it's normal and even if it doesn't feel good, it's important that we're actually experiencing failure.”
Angela Giordano, a health promotion specialist at Bentley, was cut from the varsity field hockey team during her junior year in college. She felt lost because being an athlete had been her identity since seventh grade.
“I had to figure out where my interests were and that led me to new opportunities with different organizations as a student leader and as a peer health educator,” Giordano said. “That led me to this role today. I learned that I can be resilient.”
Assistant Professor of Marketing Natalie Baucum, after graduating from high school with honors, struggled with statistics courses during college and graduate studies. When an academic adviser told her how statistics could advance her career, Baucum buckled down. “I went from barely passing statistics to getting a concentration in it and making all As,” she said.
Mike Duggan ˊ12 shared his story of taking eight years to graduate from Bentley because of the medical leave he took for an opioid addiction that began in high school. “I hated everything about myself,” he said.
Duggan ultimately finished his Bentley degree and started a company that now includes a 90-bed acute hospitalization program in central Massachusetts. He now works for a larger company focused on health care technology and behavioral health trends. “I'm grateful for the failure that I had because ultimately, it shaped my perception on life,” Duggan said. “My outlook on life is different. I appreciate things differently than I would have had I not gone through those struggles.”
Bentley professor and physician Fred Ledley, director of the Center for Integration of Science and Industry, shared his experience of becoming the “fall guy” for a biotechnology business he started that failed. “If you never have a failure, you just haven't taken enough chances,” said Ledley.
After the company failed, Ledley took time off to write a novel and turned down a pharmaceutical industry job to join Bentley. “You might think there's a path, but there are a lot of right answers in life you don't even know about,” he said. “It's OK to be opportunistic and not just think you have a strategy and a path that has to work out the way you planned it.”
Sloane Hughes ’20 said hearing others talk so openly about their downfalls helped her see the advantage of being resilient.
“As students, we can be really hard on ourselves and feel that we need to reach and achieve certain goals,” she said. “It helped to reframe my thinking around failure. Now I can see it as something that betters you in some way.”