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As a Duke student, pressure is an omnipresent force in my day-to-day life. Pressure to finish a lab report, study for a midterm, get good grades, apply for that internship, workout, and act as if you are not burdened by pressure. Every Duke (and college) student is constantly reinforced with the idea that their college years are the most important and formative four years of their entire life. Life at university is always undermined by the looming threat of failure, and the seemingly dire implications of a small misstep, as if every mistake takes you farther and farther away from your dreams.

However, failure in itself is a critical and transformative method of growing both academically and personally, and a lack thereof creates an ‘echo chamber of success’. Nobody is willing to take risks, to explore, to lean into any area of their life that is not already faultless. This fear of failure has curbed our ability, and desire, to attempt any action that does not guarantee success at the expense of our learning experience while in college.

During my first week of DukeEngage in DC, failure has been restored as an invaluable tool for learning and growth. I, along with another member of my cohort, are interning at a startup that utilizes cutting-edge technology in order to halt human-induced extinction. With only eight weeks to design, iterate, and finish an engineering project, we have been presented with a challenging and novel outlet for our creativity. We must relearn how to “fail forward”, which means to constantly reach for ideas that may not guarantee success (and most likely will end in failure). Using these missteps, we can continually refine and iterate through our project, with the eventual goal of a finished project. With the ability to fail small and often, we can sift through all of our potentially useful ideas to find those that work the best, all the while gaining more understanding as to how our project can succeed. If none of our ideas work, we can go back to the drawing board and try again.

Failure is intrinsically linked to success, even if college life attempts to bifurcate the two into seemingly distant concepts, with success illuminated as the only possible outcome. Through failure, you learn how to think on your feet, adapt to new situations, and, above all else, how to take risks. This first week has continually forced me to use my failures as stepping stones to success, rather than view them as dead ends. I can’t wait to see where my failures will take me.