Illustration: Serge Bloch

In the spring of his senior year, Russell Dinkins ’13 put on a brave face to hide something from his friends: He would not be receiving his degree because he had not finished his thesis. 

“I was deeply ashamed and embarrassed,” Dinkins wrote later in a Facebook post. “I felt utterly alone, inadequate, and unaccomplished.”

Dinkins, who grew up in inner-city Philadelphia, was the first in his family to go away to college. Raised by a single mother, he had gained admission to a Massachusetts boarding school. Through scrappy perseverance, he became a top-ranked track star at a school with a middling track program, writing to the directors of track meets himself and traveling hours on his own so he could compete. But at Princeton, he began to doubt his abilities. “I struggled mightily with feelings of intense loneliness, bouts of depression, and an oftentimes paralyzing fear of failure,” he wrote on Facebook. 

That spring, he endured many sleepless nights staring at his computer screen, unable to make progress on his thesis for the sociology department. Back home for the summer, his mother confronted him. She told him he had to finish. 

He returned to Princeton in the fall, rented a room off campus, got a job, and set to work on his thesis at night by altering his thinking. “I didn’t let negativity invade my thoughts,” he wrote. “I told myself that I was going to finish if I just kept working.” Little by little, he chipped away at it. He turned in his 120-page thesis in the winter of 2014 and earned his Princeton diploma.

Russell Dinkins ’13
Photo: Beverly Schaefer

Dinkins posted an essay about the experience on Facebook because he wanted to convey that “it’s OK to struggle,” he tells PAW. “It’s incumbent on all of us not only to share when dealing with struggle, but also not to judge.”

Confronting failure is a new experience for some Princeton students. Many arrive on campus having succeeded at everything they tried. Now they are in an environment where all their peers have been standouts, and some find themselves — for the first time — facing rejection at an audition, earning a bad grade, or being unable to keep up with their academic work. They start to doubt their abilities. But they are deeply reluctant to talk about those feelings — or admit to failure — with their peers.

Pushing through those doubts and bouncing back from failure requires resilience. Dinkins demonstrated it by recommitting himself to his thesis and pushing ahead until he finished. Experts say resilience is essential for young people to develop in order to conquer the inevitable roadblocks they will face.

In the last few years, some Princeton students have begun to defy the taboos that often have kept the thrum of anxiety on campus under wraps. They are talking openly about failure and revealing that they think those around them are succeeding effortlessly. They are confessing to feeling like imposters.

“We want princeton students to not be afraid of failing and afraid of talking about all the hard work, the hard parts of princeton, and the rejection.” —Donovan Cassidy-Nolan ’21

Donovan Cassidy-Nolan ’21 was admitted to Princeton off the waitlist, so a sliver of self-doubt had already made its way into his psyche. Then he tried out for the Princeton University Orchestra and didn’t get in. He had never before been rejected after an audition. Over the summer, he decided to learn a difficult piece, the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, practicing for hours every day. “I like the challenge of doing hard things. I’m very much a perfectionist,” he says. “I’m trying to become a recovering perfectionist.” He auditioned again for the orchestra in the fall of his sophomore year and was rejected again. 

Cassidy-Nolan is passionate about music, but it is only a hobby for him. He is a molecular biology major who is applying to M.D.-Ph.D. programs.

Donovan Cassidy-Nolan ’21
Photo: Denise Applewhite/Office of Communications

After not making it into the orchestra, “I was dejected at first, but I realized that an activity is not the only thing that defines you, and an activity can still define you in a meaningful way without you being the best at it,” he says. He ended up joining a less competitive orchestra, Princeton University Sinfonia, which he enjoyed. “I think it is a problem at Princeton that people are very scared of failure.” 

Cassidy-Nolan now is co-chair of the Princeton Perspective Project, a student-led initiative that promotes public discussion of failure to help students stop feeling ashamed of setbacks and learn how to develop resilience. The group also seeks to combat the illusion that students call “effortless perfection.” “You’re sitting in class and everybody else seems to be doing amazingly without seeming to put in the same amount of work you need to,” he says. “That’s clearly a myth, but it can be a bit dangerous. We want Princeton students to not be afraid of failing and afraid of talking about all the hard work, the hard parts of Princeton, and the rejection.” 

“Students are hungrier than ever for information about how to promote well-being for themselves,” says Jane Gillham ’88, a psychologist who designs programs that help develop resilience, particularly in young people, and a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College. In teenagers’ lives, she points out, “so much of what they get feedback on is achievement, so it’s very easy to get pulled into focusing on achievement.”

Many students from well-off families have led lives in which they never were confronted with situations that required resilience, she points out. “When things have gone smoothly, one may not have the opportunity to develop resilience skills.”

Jane Gillham ’88
Courtesy Jane Gillham ’88

Adolescence is the peak time to develop depression, which is why it’s so important to talk to young people about these issues, she says. She is the co-creator of the Penn Resilience Program, which she developed with fellow graduate students while earning her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. Her thesis adviser was Penn professor Martin Seligman ’64, known as the founder of the field of positive psychology. Since 1997, the Penn Resilience Program has been presented to more than a million students in fifth through ninth grades, government employees, businesspeople, and others. Empirical studies have found it increases optimism and reduces anxiety, Gillham says.

One of the crucial ways to develop resilience is changing what Gillham calls “self-talk.” “Many of us, late at night, think of the things we didn’t do well and beat ourselves up about that,” she says. “We may be more pessimistic than we need to be, catastrophizing situations. ‘I did poorly on that test. I’m never going to pass that class.’ We conclude too much from setbacks and let it sap our motivation and make us feel bad.” Another important element is accepting anxious or sad feelings as they occur instead of trying to fight them.

“Adolescence is the peak time to develop depression, which is why it’s so important to talk to young people about these issues.” —Psychologist Jane Gillham ’88

The programs designed by Gillham help students recognize destructive self-talk and give them tools to make a more accurate assessment of situations and adopt a more productive outlook. There are discussions of the way our bodies are wired to focus more on negative thoughts, a legacy of our survival instincts when we needed to look out for physical dangers. The programs also help students develop assertiveness so they can make changes in difficult situations. Research has shown that relationships — not casual ones, but close ones — also are important to developing resilience, according to Gillham.

There isn’t a clear clinical answer to why some people develop resilience and others do not, but genetics likely plays a role, as does the way students hear parents and teachers address challenges, Gillham says. “If you struggle with spelling, does the teacher say, ‘Here are strategies you can use to get better’ or ‘You just have a hard time with spelling’?” she says. (The first approach fosters resilience.) Influential research by Stanford professor Carol Dweck has found that one key aspect of rebounding from obstacles is adopting a “growth mindset” — believing talents can be developed through hard work — instead of a “fixed mindset,” which sees them as innate. Having a growth mindset also makes it easier to ask for help.

Other key elements of resilience are determination and persistence, traits Joe Ort ’21 demonstrated after failing to make the mock trial team during his first year at Princeton. At first, recalls Ort, who was captain of his high school team, “I was gutted. It really affected me for the next few months. I fell into a funk.” But eventually he decided to get involved with the team as a volunteer, which involved staffing moot court events that took place at 8 a.m. on Saturdays. “It was humbling for me, because these were the people who rejected me.” He made the team the next year, and today he is its president. 

He likes to share his story of striking out at his first tryout with those who do not make the team. “Princeton has a culture of: If you fail, just pretend like it never happened. Shove it under the carpet.” He wants to combat that perception, which is exacerbated by social media, where people invariably post news of achievements and upbeat moments, but rarely their setbacks. He tries to inoculate himself against the downsides of social media by using a long, complicated password, which deters him from logging in too frequently. 

Princeton students are “extremely driven,” Ort says. “They place enormous amounts of pressure on themselves. Everyone is so intent on establishing themselves as the best,” which creates a pressure-cooker environment that requires resilience to get through. 

To build a bulwark against feelings of inferiority, Ort recommends that students pay more attention to clubs that don’t require a tryout. “It’s OK for some things you do to be low stakes,” he says. But such clubs tend to have trouble generating interest on Princeton’s campus. The noncompetitive public speaking club he joined “had a hard time getting more than five people to come to a weekly meeting,” he says. “Princeton is very much about getting into something that’s selective.” 

Ort discussed his initial rejection from mock trial — and how he got over it — in a video that was played for all first-year students at the University’s virtual orientation program in August. In it, several students recount how they faced feelings of inadequacy at Princeton and how they got through them. 

“We talk to students about ways to define yourself according to your values instead of your accomplishments, as a way to cultivate resilience,” says Calvin Chin, the director of counseling and psychological services at Princeton University Health Services. “You will inevitably encounter failure. It’s a normal part of life. It’s how you cope with failure that really makes a difference.”

During that orientation session, Chin used Zoom’s polling function to ask the almost 700 students online if they had ever felt like an imposter. The results quickly popped up on the screen: 98 percent said yes. “It was incredibly powerful to see that everybody else has felt insecure,” he says. “What would it mean for our community if people were open to sharing that? What’s universal is the struggle. What reinforces imposter syndrome is that no one talks about it.”

“We talk to students about ways to define yourself according to your values instead of your accomplishments as a way to cultivate resilience.” —Calvin Chin, Director Of Counseling and Psychological Services at Princeton University Health Services

The University has made cultivating resilience in the student body — and teaching students coping skills — a priority. It starts at orientation and carries through in resources ranging from assistance from Counseling and Psychological Services to tutoring at the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning to programs that support first-generation, lower-income, veteran, nontraditional, and otherwise underrepresented students. It’s especially important to normalize failure for first-gen students because of imposter syndrome. Often, when underrepresented students encounter an obstacle, such as negative feedback on an assignment, “they are more likely to read that as something that’s wrong with them, rather than a normal experience or a structural issue,” says Khristina Gonzalez, associate dean of the college and director of Programs for Access and Inclusion. 

Though the University often reminds students of available support systems, those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds may not be accustomed to relying on such help and “don’t feel entitled to it,” she says. “We tell students from the beginning: Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. This is a sign of strength.” Talking to peers is one of the most effective ways students get support to cope with challenges, she has found. The Scholars Institute Fellows Program, a mentoring initiative that matches groups of eight to 10 first-gen, lower-income students with upperclass students, has grown to 400 participants; this year it meets virtually. 

Another tool the University has deployed is to present high achievers talking about their own failures. A lecture held on campus last March was billed as “Three Successful People. Three Great Epics of Failure.” It featured two Princeton professors and one administrator discussing how they had failed on the road to success. In 2016, Princeton professor Johannes Haushofer published his “CV of Failures,” which lists the academic positions and awards he didn’t get and the academic journals that rejected his submissions. 

A freshman seminar called “Failure: The Other ‘F’ Word: Success and Innovation’s Sibling?” explores the interdisciplinary dynamics of failure in history, technology, politics, athletics, art, behavioral economics, psychology, and philosophy. (Alas, you may not take the class pass/fail.) Students keep a handwritten “failure journal” and undertake “failure forays,” when they try something at which they think they will not succeed and keep track of what they learned. They have performed improv to conquer stage fright, committed to volunteering first in every class, and tried out for a sports team. “Understanding your failures makes you more likely to develop resilience and get back in the game,” says John Danner, a lecturer at the University’s Keller Center, who teaches the class. 

An annual Facebook campaign by the Princeton Perspective Project called “The Other Side of Me” asks students to post reflections about aspects of their lives that they don’t usually reveal. Students have written about “crumbling under an immense amount of stress” and “the fear of not being good enough for Princeton.”

Attending Princeton remotely because of the pandemic has made many of these issues more fraught. It’s easier to feel imposter syndrome when you can no longer walk out of an exam and chat with your peers about how tough the test was. It’s harder to turn to friends for comfort when they are in another state instead of down the hall. 

Asking for help is a key tool of developing resilience, and students were doing just that over the summer, with visits to Counseling and Psychological Services up 95 percent, Chin says. This fall the number of visits has returned to more typical levels. “Students are experiencing isolation, feeling disconnected from their peers and frustrated by not being able to do things normally,” Chin says. “So many students have shown tremendous resilience in the face of this. I’ve been impressed by how adaptable so many have been.” Fewer students are seeking help for issues around their social lives, he says, but many are discussing stressful family situations now that they are living at home. Those with preexisting depression and anxiety may be finding their problems exacerbated, he says. 

Several students have told Kauribel Javier ’19, who works on campus as the program coordinator for the Whig-Cliosophic Society, that they are having a hard time with the pandemic. “They’re tired; there’s no way to sugarcoat it,” she says. “I can see it on Zoom calls in their faces.” During the first few months, especially, “I think there was a lot of loneliness,” she says. When students reach out to talk about academic or personal difficulties, she reminds them that it’s OK to take it easy on themselves. 

The pandemic may be offering a key lesson in resilience: how to push on and get work done without being a perfectionist. While her fellow students are typically driven to excel, these days “I’ve heard ‘completion’ thrown around a lot,” says Lauren Huff ’22, co-chair, with Cassidy-Nolan, of the Princeton Perspective Project. “I think people are less engaged. We’re doing it, it’s getting done, but it’s not the same level of academic pursuit.”

Finding a reservoir of strength to push through adversity often provides other valuable lessons. Tiana Woolridge ’15 went through periods when she doubted her abilities during her time at Princeton and in graduate school. She especially remembers self-doubt creeping in during her third year of medical school, when she was questioned during rounds by a senior doctor and didn’t know the answer. “My mind would quickly jump to, ‘You’re not smart enough to be here.’ As a Black woman in a predominantly white, male field, the stakes are even higher, and the pressure is higher. You feel like you have to be twice as good as everyone else to be perceived as half as competent.”

When she received a score on a board exam that was below her high expectations, the doubts began again. But — using the tools she had learned from sessions with a counselor at Princeton — she began to push back on her self-criticism and instead asked herself: What type of medicine am I really passionate about practicing? The answer turned out to be pediatrics, not the specialty she had been considering. “If I had scored really high on that exam and hadn’t really struggled with feelings of imposter syndrome, I may not have taken a step back and reevaluated,” she says. “I learned more from failure than success.” 

Jennifer Altmann is a freelance writer and editor.