Globe Editorial

Failure: A lesson worth teaching

September 4, 2011

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Teaching students how to fail is not something we expect from Harvard University as it prepares to celebrate its 375th year. But the university deserves praise for creating a new initiative on failure, rejection, and resilience.

“Perfectionism carried to an extreme is not a strength. It becomes debilitating and hinders full potential,’’ explains Harvard Admissions Dean William Fitzsimmons, who for three decades has been urging accepted Harvard students to delay college for a “gap year’’ to work, travel, volunteer, or do something besides compete and achieve. But most turn him down.

So last spring the university issued an invitation to a panel discussion in Harvard Yard, beginning, “At some point in your life you will experience rejection. . .’’ Called “Reflections on Rejections: An Exploration of Resilience in the Face of Failure,’’ the panel drew a large crowd. It also elicited more than a few Oprah-style confessions about personal failure and its role in creating more compassionate human beings. Based on the panel’s popularity, similar events are planned on campus this year.

News that mortals can fail and emerge stronger will no doubt come as a shock to the 1,661 students who recently descended on Cambridge as members of this year’s freshman class. They represent a mere 6 percent of applicants, making it the most competitive class ever. “We want to make sure Harvard hubris is only a stereotype and not a reality,’’ joked Fitzsimmons. But in helping its students learn how to fail, Harvard is doing them a great favor.