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Failure and Success: An Introduction

During the University College Tilburg 2019 and 2020 Opening Conference, the prospective Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Sciences students were introduced to the Resilience Project through an interactive panel session on failure and success. The project has the objective of increasing the ability of students to cope with and bounce back from failure. But what is failure exactly? This was only one of the following five questions that were presented to the students:


  1. Who has experienced a failure in the past year?

  2. Who is willing to share this failure? Why (not)?

  3. What is failure?

  4. Is there a value to failure?

  5. What is success?


During the 2019 Opening Conference, the students entered into a discussion with a panel of experts, which consisted of dr. Roos Slegers (Philosophy Department, Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences), dr. Tessa Leesen (Liberal Arts and Sciences, University College Tilburg), dr. Suzanne van der Beek (Department of Culture Studies), Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences) and prof. dr. Alkeline van Lenning (Dean, University College Tilburg). The discussion was moderated by dr. Ellen Dreezens (Liberal Arts and Sciences, University College Tilburg).


The discrepancy between the group of students that had experienced a failure in the past year and the students, who were willing to share this failure, is telling. Intuitively, people tend to hide their failures: ‘If you do not succeed, then hide all evidence that you have tried’, the comedian Steven Wright quotes. Apparently, failure brings shame, despite the fact that it is part of life. Only when people have been able to turn their failures into a success, they dare to speak up. Indeed, it is important to pick yourself back up after a failure and try to turn your failure into a success. If we wish to learn from our failures, taking responsibility for your missteps is a key element. However, it is important to realize that not every failure can be turned into a fabulous success story and that, sometimes, failure is just failure.


The students and panel members jointly concluded that failure is the mismatch between the expectations people set for themselves, the expectations society sets for them and reality. To a certain extent, this makes failure a subjective experience, because people fail by standards that are different to everyone. Dr. Slegers engaged the philosophy of Adam Smith who argues that we strive for status and riches because deep down we believe they will win us the love and respect of others. Failure in contemporary commercial, commodified society hits extra hard because when we fall short of success in financial and material terms, we experience it as a dent in our sense of self-worth and lovability. So we keep striving for more believing that, in the words of Ariana Grande: "Whoever said money can't solve your problems / Must not have had enough money to solve 'em." (Seven Rings)


The counterpart of failure, success, also entails a subjective component as people tend to strive for different aims and goals in life. Yet, there is also a societal aspect to success; society seems to have an image of what a successful person should be like. Dr. van der Beek pointed out that the way the success of books is measured illustrates the subjectivity and the imposed expectations of society. The success of books is often measured by means of quantifiable data – How many people bought the book? –, whilst this information does not say anything about the transformative success of books. Therefore, success is a relative term, and although standard measurements in quantifiable information are relevant, they might not always be the best measurements of success.

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