An Open Letter to Failure

An Open Letter to Failure by Kaitlin Joshua

 To failure: you weren’t poetic.

Academics have always been my “thing.” Even in the midst of the

awakening that is high school, my grades have always trumpeted my

success. No matter what insecurities or negative interactions I had,

I belonged in a space. It was empowering and, most consequentially,


That tale was common at Vanderbilt. Most students exuded competence:

the kinks in their personas were methodically ironed out, replaced

with images of success and security. I didn’t find walking defeats

meandering through Buttrick as I hustled up the stairs to Spanish. No

one wore the losses they’d taken upon their sleeves, or offered up

their humbling moments for public consumption. Academic hiccups were

more clichéd success stories to be edited into grad school essays

than anything else. Thankfully, my first semester fell in line with

little fanfare. That December, I took a breath.

And then January cast itself like a somber gray cloud over my

coursework. I was a hesitant economics major, and that meant at least

one semester of calculus. I was never a math person, and it was with

that tentative attitude that I approached Stevenson for the first

time last winter. The ordeal was nothing short of a disaster. I spent

hours a day poring over practice problems and nights staring holes

into my notes. No memory of that semester comes as vividly as

fluorescent lights shining onto the glossy pages of my textbook. I

couldn’t just not do well. And yet, one day each month, my stomach

twisted as each red mark stripped away my irrational belief that

somehow I’d save myself come May.

I didn’t. Not by several percentage points. And I had never felt

disappointment in myself weigh so heavily. Pervasively.

There was no beautiful mistake blooming from my struggle, and a

difficult semester didn’t somehow blossom into a marketable success

story. Last summer it was just my body in an endless loop, cycling

through yoga, course catalogues, meditation, prayer, grad school

programs with minimal math prerequisites, Zumba, face masks, long

baths, journaling, bad poetry, painting, classical music, and every

other activity Pinterest offers up in the name of self care.

But I didn’t struggle because I needed to add an extra step to my

morning yoga routine. I struggled that summer because there were so

many questions piling up in my brain: most notably, How do I define

myself outside of this? I had to ask myself that question about

everything, from academics to relationships to future goals. I began

grappling with my insecurities, questioning why I had them in the

first place and why I’d accepted them as inherent parts of myself.

It was an ugly process. It took dissecting my assumptions, thought

processes, feelings, and interactions with the world around me. It

was anger, discomfort, sadness, guilt, loneliness, and anxiety. It

was also a sigh of relief. Everytime I lay in bed running through the

script of my life, I let go of someone’s assumption or projection of

me. I released definitions that didn’t align with what I believed

about myself, and paid more attention to what I valued- creativity

above all else. Open-mindedness. Communication. Justice.

Sometimes when I sit in calculus this semester, I imagine myself back

in my original classroom in the very first row. I see myself

arranging my already-organized notes and my painstakingly neat

handwriting. I look down at my notes this fall: messier, and spotted

with random doodles and to-do lists. Sometimes I don’t listen to all

the examples. I cross out my mistakes and start anew. When I get

stressed, I do my deep-breathing exercises and remember that life

works because of the messy bits and jagged edges. I am doing

astronomically better.

To failure: you are a journey, one that I’m still on. I’m sure my

professor has no clue the self I’ve become because of her spring

11:10 section.