Pressure and failure


This is a running list of some of my favorite accounts of personal rejection or failure (narrowly: in school and in tech).

Ian Goodfellow

Ian Goodfellow’s name is now roughly synonymous with deep learning, but he describes plenty of personal risks, subsequent failures, and post-facto views on them:

I once applied for a summer internship with a Stanford professor. My transcript was included in my application. He replied “Why do you have an A in my class?” It turned out I wasn’t actually meant to have an A in his class. I thought there had been a generous curve, but there had only been a computer glitch. The result of my internship application was that Stanford downgraded my transcript.

The full interview (I strongly recommend reading it).

Alex Roth

A TA for an introductory computer science course at Columbia University:

Personal note

I wrote this a while back. It’s advice for students under personal or external pressure, especially those feeling unsupported or alone.

Dear new freshman (welcome!), sophomore, junior, or senior: you’re going to be fine.

This university challenges everyone who enrolls. The ways in which your limits, perspectives, and personality change might shock you as time progresses. Some people mesh with this school well from their first week; some people struggle to enjoy it at all, over the course of all their years. But this process grows and builds you: whatever perception of yourself you might have right now, that will change and grow in subtle ways every day for the rest of college.

I’m excited for the changes that will take place for you. If you had trouble making friends during your orientation, you’ll attain more interesting and caring friends over the next few years. If your first-semester required coursework is already giving you doubts about your fitness here, you will learn to study and manage your time (by necessity). If you believe you’re in a precarious state mentally or emotionally - don’t worry. I promise you that someone else has been in that position, that they have made it out, and so can you.

I’m confident making all these assertions because I’ve observed it all happen in my classmates, close friends, and myself. I’ve had the fortune of watching people grow and change in ways they didn’t expect, and all these people have become strong, confident, and aware regardless of where they started. That’s why I’m excited for you, even if I don’t know you (and it’s frustratingly easy to not know someone at this school). I’m excited for you to be surprised by your own ability to empathize, persevere, and grow.

I know so many people who have questioned (or continue to question) whether they deserve to be at this school, or whether they belong here. Maybe you don’t have a strong community, or the people seem whack, or academics just isn’t working out for you. I’ve spent a lot of time mulling over those exact doubts. I promise you that someone else has been in your position, however bad, and that they left that position happier and more well-rounded.

Pause, breathe, and maybe laugh at it all. Chances are you’re actually doing great. But if you’re not, trust me - you’re going to be fine.