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What Duke students fear the most

I remember the first time that a class ever kicked my ass. It was high school Honors Chemistry (Pre-AP, as we called it) in my junior year. I couldn’t make heads or tails of periodic trends. I didn’t understand orbitals. If my phenolphthalein ended up as anything lighter than fire-truck red, I was having a good titration day. Despite paying attention in class and giving the homework problems my best shot, nothing seemed to work out. I remember starting to doubt myself and what I could achieve for the very first time. If I couldn’t do pre-labs in Honors Chemistry, what if I got a C in the class? What if my GPA fell? What if I failed?

In the years since, I have been afraid of failure in every context imaginable. What if I can’t get a date to prom? What if I don’t get acceptances from any colleges? What if no one likes me? What if I choose the wrong classes? What if I can’t drink this ice in only one go? What if Nugget walks away from me when I really want to pet her? As Duke students, however, entertaining any doubts about imperfection or failure is taboo. Are you really ready to admit that you are not perfectly confident and easily balancing your nine extracurriculars, six executive board positions, all the while hiding your weed habits from your parents?

Me neither. It’s just not really the culture here. We are afraid of failure. We are afraid of self-doubt. We are afraid to let others know that not everything is going as well as we had hoped. While I do not think that Duke is a cutthroat place, I do think we have a long way to go before we are collectively ready to admit that we all struggle sometimes. I think that one way that we can try to normalize failure is to talk about it more. With that in mind, I would like to bring to Duke something that I heard about a few years ago via Abby Falik, one of my role models: the “failure resume.” It’s a CV of all the things you didn’t get, didn’t do or screwed up on. Here’s mine: 

  • I am spending my time, effort and mental capacity on a major that I’m not 100 percent sure that I want to continue with in the future. 
  • Sometimes, I do not have take academics at Duke super seriously. I have received a lot of poor exam grades. 
  • I am working at a job that I feel does more to perpetuate the gap between rich and poor than it does to fight it. 
  • I used to be really racist and homophobic, and had a pitiful amount of empathy and respect for my fellow human beings. 
  • I am 21 years old and have not accomplished anything substantial. My skills are still pretty minimal.
  • The one thing I really want to do this summer isn’t looking very likely right now.
  • I have trouble with balance: I spend too much time on things that I find interesting or important while sometimes neglecting other more pressing responsibilities.
  • I love being spontaneous and have trouble adjusting to rigid environments. 
  • I have not had any substantial romantic relationships.
  • I forgot to tell my Chronicle editor that I wasn’t submitting a column two weeks ago (Sorry, Frances!)

While I don’t believe that we all need to put our failure resumes out for everyone to see, just a few steps in that direction would go a long way here. Let each other know that you struggle. That sometimes dealing with it all is super hard. That you are still working on things. That your finsta is a much better representation of your life than your real Instagram account. That you haven't gone to Wilson since the first week of classes. Maybe if we’re more honest with each other, we’ll be able to see the people here as the flawed, beautiful messes that we all truly are.

Luke Sallmen is a Trinity sophomore. His column usually runs on alternate Thursdays.


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