NYT Bestselling Author, Rachel Simmons, Talks Failure

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Yesterday, on September 20, Swarthmore’s Center for Innovation and Leadership (CIL) welcomed Rachel Simmons, author of the New York Times Best Seller Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, to host her workshop: Failure: How To Do It Well.

Students packed into the Scheuer Room, grabbing refreshments while joining their peers and faculty members at the round tables in the room.

Katie Clark, Director of the CIL, began the event by introducing Simmons and noting that failures are rarely things that we feel comfortable sharing. Clark then shared a failure of her own.

Simmons stepped up to the front of the room and launched into the story of how she dropped out of the Rhodes Scholarship, reflecting on the fact that she had become obsessed with academic achievement and fell into a depression when she did not meet her own expectations.

“It was far more important for me to be a Rhodes Scholar than to deal with what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” she said.

Simmons cited what she refers to as the “College Application Industrial Complex,” or CACA for short, as the culprit. Essentially, students feel a pressure to be amazing at everything they do, which ultimately does more harm than good.


Rachel Simmons addressing Swarthmore students at her workshop, Failure: How To Do It Right. Photo courtesy of Robert Eppley ’19.

“If you think you have to be awesome all the time, you’re probably going to walk around thinking you’re not awesome enough,” Simmons pointed out.

The workshop was largely interactive, allowing participants to engage with concepts surrounding “successful failure.” Simmons touched on strategies such as self-knowledge, self-confidence, the healthy interpretation of failure, which all involve moving away from all-or-nothing thinking.

“We get to decide how we experience these setbacks,” Simmons declared.

Simmons also touched on myths surrounding failure, like the idea that being hard on one’s self is the best way to self-motivate. “Shame leads to no motivation, anxiety, depression […] You will not get back out there if you beat yourself up,” she said.

Instead, Simmons suggested the practice of self-compassion – offering kindness and understanding to one’s self in the face of failure, as we would a friend.

Throughout the workshop, Simmons shared personal stories, experiences, and thought processes as examples of the types of thinking we can work to curb. She recalled a bad breakup when speaking on the topic of rumination, the process of going over things repeatedly in one’s head, and made an astute claim: “Thinking a lot about something doesn’t mean you’re getting closer to solving it.”

Students who attended appeared to respond positively. Many of them shared their own thoughts and feelings throughout the workshop.

Guin Mesh ‘19, who had actually read Simmons’ book prior to attending the workshop, noted its relationship to Odd Girl Out. “[Odd Girl Out] does really tie in well to what this talk was about because it’s all about that self-awareness, and you can take this talk as it is, or you can put it into a social context,” Mesh said.

Student Innovation Intern Robert Eppley ‘19 commented on the overall turnout and experience. “We were really happy with how many people showed up, and also, the growth through the event got better by the end, which I was pretty happy about,” he said.

Simmons wrapped up by imploring students to ask for and accept support. “The truth is that most people want to help you […] it makes people feel good to help you,” she said.

Featured image courtesy of Robert Eppley ’19. 

Natalie Flores

Natalie, a desert-dweller, has recently declared a Psychology major and minors in Linguistics and Art History. It is quite possible that she will never leave The Daily Gazette and will eventually die in the Parrish 4th office.

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