Failure at Pomona

By Danny DeBare ‘22

Failure is both the most and least talked about phenomenon at Pomona. Students at Pomona throw it into casual conversations: “Oh my gosh, I totally just failed that midterm!” Yet this over-exaggerated comment–dare I say joke­–almost rarely equates to a D or F grade. On the other hand, when not getting cast in theater productions, or not receiving specific accolades on a varsity sports team, students rarely talk about it.

fear of failure message

When coming to Pomona, students seem to be scared to fail. Often hailing from highly competitive high school environments and working extremely hard to get into this college, Pomona students are adverse to failure. To receive admission into Pomona, students are wired to avoid activities that might not lead to this award or that position. If we have spent the last four years (at least) excelling in activities and thriving academically, why would anything change right off the bat here at Pomona?

My challenge to myself when entering Pomona was to try new things; breaking out of my comfort zone meant going to different auditions, submitting different applications, and showing up to classes I wasn’t necessarily prepared to handle. In my first month of school, I got five rejections from a variety of on-campus jobs and clubs. Five emails (or lack of emails) from groups that “unfortunately didn’t have space for me in their program at this time. In all honesty, I wasn’t a good fit for one or two, and my year of high school PE dance didn’t quite prepare me for the dance auditions.

In an ideal world, I would have honestly brought up these failures in conversations. However, when the typical “how was your day” came up, I artfully maneuvered around the feelings that arose when that rejection email landed in my inbox. People would judge me if I got rejected, right? WRONG.

two students walking on campus

Here at Pomona, engaging honestly with people is the first step of the way there to embracing failure. Students care more about the qualities of their friends and less about their résumes. Eventually, when I more openly talked about the rejections, people didn’t care at all; in fact, they opened up and talked about a failure of their own. But, those conversations took months to eventually reach. If we start to normalize failure, Pomona students can take more risks, discover more unique passions, and truly embrace the “try it all” value the liberal arts environment champions. 

rugby players celebrating

On the flip side, it feels like students don’t give themselves the recognition they deserve when they reach goals! Be it a team they worked all summer to make, an essay they poured their heart and soul into, or a personal benchmark they achieved, many Pomona students don’t celebrate their wins with friends. This also makes it more difficult for students to share failures with each other, because when no one talks about success, they in turn don’t talk about shortcomings. Being more open with one another about both the good and bad could help cultivate a more honest and organic culture on campus.

This year, the Humanities Studio, a speaker and workshop series, touched on failure in the world around us with the theme “Fail Better.” From the change in public perception after Trump’s use of the word “loser” became viral, to how authors bounce back from rejection, the Pomona administration already sees the value of championing failure: there’s a whole speaker series about it. But work still needs to be done around normalizing and embracing not succeeding in every single activity out there. With such a breadth of activities to try, the celebration of failure marks the first step in students discovering new passions and interests.

Danny with challah dough

When you put a tad too much yeast in the dough! Follow @challah_gram on Instagram to see some of my non-failures.