I had trained to be a professional ballet dancer in high school and was used to hard work so at first I thought that I just needed to try harder to take advantage of college. I continued to go through the motions but grew increasingly anxious. Simple things — like talking to other students or getting through a lecture — grew into insurmountable challenges. Things I knew I was capable of doing well became daunting; the emotional paralysis of it all left me even more depressed.
As children, we’re trained to avoid failure, not learn from it. It’s presented as a sign of inadequacy, even worthlessness. I think this is the hidden cost of a K-12 curriculum that is achievement-oriented. Failure is never presented to us as a different kind of educational experience, a universal (and ceaseless) part of being human.
As a result, I saw my mounting inadequacies as proof that my life was falling apart. After all, there was no rational reason I should have been unhappy. I believed that if I were truly qualified to be where I was, I wouldn’t be struggling at all.
I went from being a confident literature nerd hoping to earn a Ph.D. to a voiceless, slumped student who cowered behind her desk. I stopped raising my hand and started hiding in the back of the classroom, afraid to speak up and publicly humiliate myself. I dropped classes and opted out of study abroad. I stopped eating and lost handfuls of hair.
At the end of that year, I quit my sorority and withdrew from college.
That’s when I had to confront the fact that the worst thing I could imagine had happened: I’d failed. But strangely, because it couldn’t be undone and there was nowhere to go but forward, it was easier to rebuild.
Basically, after I left school, life opened up. I became comfortable learning about the world in a way that wasn’t scripted by a syllabus. To pay my bills, I taught ballet lessons and was soon doing administrative work for my old ballet studio. Because I liked writing, I…