First-Year Focus: Rebounding

Overcoming doubt and failure at Vanderbilt

Sometimes, it’s just one of those days. The one morning you forgot to check the weather, it’s pouring rain right when you step outside. With no umbrella and rainboots, you end up getting soaked before you even make it to your first class. As the teacher passes back exams, you sit with a confident smile on your face until you look down at your score, which is less than satisfactory. A grimace replaces the smile, and you trudge out the door in defeat. At your first collegiate tournament, you feel prepared, ready to face any upperclassmen with your superior skills. Then, that “freshman moment” comes—you forget something your coach told you to do, you’re caught off guard when you’re outmatched by a senior, you make the wrong call. Embarrassed that you have been defeated so early on in the year in more ways than one, you wonder: What am I doing here? Can I succeed?

I know that I have had more than one “freshman moment.” Whether it’s a depressingly average exam score (courtesy of “weed out” intro science courses), or blanking on how to counter an objection in the courtroom, none of them have been pleasant. I think we’ve all had some discouraging moments thus far in the year, to varying extents. It’s easy to feel disheartened and confused when we encounter these less than optimal situations.

However, sometimes moments of “failure” are the best ways to learn and grow. As Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Although others around him pointed out that he had failed too many ways to count, he kept on trying. Eventually, he succeeded.

Low points in our academic or extracurricular career here will come sooner or later. It’s tempting, but impractical to hope that there will be no bumps in the road as we journey through the next four years. Since it is inevitable that we will all encounter rough times, I think it’s wise to intentionally choose not to focus on disheartening situations in order to brood over why life is so hard. Rather, I think it’s more productive and uplifting to accept feelings of frustration and disappointment when something less than optimal happens, but then shift gears into thinking about how you can rebound.

Personally, I’ve been encouraged by how I and those around me have rebounded from initial setbacks. I’ve heard about how someone went from getting a “D” on the first general chemistry exam to an “A” on the second, and experienced a powerful turnaround where my team went from losing 3 out of 4 ballots on the first day of a Mock Trial tournament to winning 4 out of 4 ballots the next day. These success stories are examples of how rebounding is possible. What is perhaps even more significant, is that these successful turnarounds were made possible by individuals who used a low point to fuel motivation to turn the tide, instead of as an opportunity to ruminate in despair. Although it is important to be in touch with how you feel after a disheartening experience, staying too long in an emotional low and holding onto negative feelings can be a trap that prevents you from moving on and rebounding.

Low points can cause us to question whether we belong here. We might experience imposter syndrome where we are afraid that we aren’t as smart, talented or capable as people think we are, or expect us to be. It’s easy to start to doubt yourself and your abilities, but the ways you have rebounded from situations where you feel like you’ve have failed is something that warrants reflection the next time you’re feeling down. In tough times it may help to trust the process; if something doesn’t work out, try a different approach or techniques. Try and try again. And if something really just doesn’t seem to be a good fit for you, there’s no shame in acknowledging that and moving on to something else. Even if you drop a class or back out of an extracurricular you can still rebound in another class, another organization. Don’t let anything keep you down. We are resilient, we are capable and we do belong.

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