We seek to avoid failures and mistakes. Weaknesses are personal attributes we strive to overcome. To overcome weaknesses and avoid failure, it is necessary first to acknowledge one’s weaknesses and critically reflect on past mistakes and failures. That process of self-reflection, so crucial for growth, is a dying practice in contemporary culture. Our politicians, professional athletes, and other public figures distort their records, covering up mistakes and ignoring their weaknesses. Here at Northwestern, I see fellow students all too often evade possible failure by taking the easiest possible routes to gratification. Admitting personal mistakes and weaknesses is never easy, but it is necessary to develop one’s strengths. Moreover, making mistakes, so long as they are acknowledged as such, can be even more beneficial in the long run than repeated minor successes.
Furthermore, a dangerous and harmful cultural trend has emerged from individuals’ growing inability to admit their mistakes. An excellent article in The New York Times breaks down why so many people are unable to admit their mistakes and apologize when their actions or words have harmed others. According to psychologist Dr. Harriet Lerner, the non-apology is the product of shaming. When children and young adults are shamed for their mistakes — hitting their siblings, poor grades, breaking a glass — the connection between admitting mistakes and the discomfort of shame become intertwined, which makes a real apology an excruciatingly uncomfortable experience.
The shame associated with admitting one’s mistakes or personal weaknesses is especially problematic for students at elite universities like NU. The admissions requirements for such schools are notoriously high. Students new to NU have rarely received poor grades or experienced rejection from student organizations. The association between mistakes and shame, a key component for many of high achievement in middle and high school, becomes crippling in college. Too often I have seen fellow students drop classes after receiving a B on a midterm or withdraw from a class to avoid a D. Dropping and withdrawing from classes prevents students from learning from mistakes, or from engaging in the ultimately beneficial fight to rebuild a poor grade. I know, personally, that the mistakes I have made in college courses taught me more about my learning style, and how to succeed, than the easier classes I have had. It may feel good to get an easy A, but fighting for an A-, or even a B+ or B, is much more beneficial in the long run.
The fundamental problem caused by society’s association of mistakes with shame is what this association causes: the inability to admit failures and weaknesses. Watching the Republican presidential debate last Wednesday on CNBC, it struck me that not a single one of the Republican candidates gave a legitimate answer when asked to name their greatest weaknesses. Instead, they evaded the question by attacking the Democratic candidates, turned a strength into a “weakness” — I’m a fighter, too optimistic, too honest — or went off on an entirely unrelated tangent. The Republican candidates’ dishonesty about their greatest weaknesses is the product of a culture that demands perfection from people in leadership positions. All of the candidates, from both parties, obfuscate their records: Carly Fiorina refuses to admit the mistakes she made at HP, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush distorts his ultra-conservative governing record in an effort to appeal more “moderate,” and former Secretary of State and Senator Hillary Clinton refuses to admit she made a mistake by voting for the invasion of Iraq. The shameful nature of public apologies, from professional golfer Tiger Woods to NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, makes admitting mistakes understandably difficult for individuals subject to national scrutiny. When people who are supposed to be role models, individuals at the top of their respective fields, demonstrate an unwillingness and inability to admit mistakes and weaknesses, the culture of shame surrounding admission of failure grows stronger. The inability of public figures to own up to their mistakes raises the question of whether or not they are truly capable of learning from them.
Therein lies the real tragedy. Critically reflecting on one’s mistakes is an important part of learning, and so is reflecting on others’ missteps. The most valuable mentors I have had here at NU told me not only about how they succeeded, but also how, when and why they failed. Discovering trends in past mistakes reveals one’s weaknesses, enabling personal growth. Public figures’ refusal to admit mistakes, or the shame with which they deliver apologies, conveys the wrong message. Internalizing the association between shame and mistakes leads students astray, evading potentially challenging situations in favor of instant and effortless gratification. College is supposed to be a time of growth and development, so get out there and take on a challenge, even if it carries with it a risk of failure.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.