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Columns, Opinions

Elizabeth Tran: Confidence-in-the-making

By
Guest Columnist
Sunday, May 31, 2020
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2020

Last fall, I attended a workshop hosted by legendary public-speaking professor Barbara Tannenbaum. In the warm comfort of her home that evening, a small group of 30 students sat around her cozy living room. Besides the home-cooked pizza that she had prepared for us, each of us came in search of the answer to one of life’s greatest challenges: how to be confident. With our backs straight and our ears perked, we all eagerly awaited her wisdom. 

After a round of initial introductions, she immediately posed the question: “Does Brown promote or reduce confidence?” 

The question caught me off guard. How can a university be responsible for its students’ confidence? How can a school influence the trust that we have in our own abilities? 

I looked around the room and saw the perplexed looks on my classmates’ faces, as we all mentally shifted gears from what had been assumed to be an introspective activity to an extrospective one. 

Sensing our confusion, Professor Tannenbaum went on to explain that the true source of confidence is failure — that the only way to have confidence is to fail. She explained, “Unless you fail, you will live in constant fear of failure, and that fear will sap from your confidence.” 

So, it turns out, the question that she was really asking us was, “Does Brown promote or reduce our ability to fail?” 

I think it’s safe to say that, for many of us, the last thing we ever hoped to encounter at Brown was failure. Inside the classroom, we were eager to learn from distinguished faculty, well-regarded in their respective fields. We yearned to have our opinions challenged and our ideas questioned by peers at every turn. We looked forward to wrestling with big questions, like “How do we eliminate income inequality?” or “How do we combat climate change?” 

Outside the classroom, we were excited to take part in a host of beloved Brown traditions. Curiosity about how fire could float on top of water, and what about this spectacle consistently attracts so many people, brought us to the river’s edge to witness our first ever WaterFire. All-nighters studying at the SciLi or a late night out with friends brought us to Louis’ colorful tables at 5 in the morning. And the thrill of dancing to live music beneath the stars brought us to Pembroke Field for A Night on College Hill. Whether it was making it out for Whiskey Wednesdays and GCB Thursdays, or scoring a free donut from the Naked Donut Run, there were many experiences that we hoped to share at Brown. 

Failure, on the other hand, was probably not high on any of our to-do lists.

Nonetheless, we all likely found ourselves grappling with failure at some point in our Brown experience. Maybe failure was being rejected from that internship or research opportunity that we really wanted. Perhaps it was not being selected for a student organization or a team that we desperately wanted to join. Or maybe it was constantly missing our 9 A.M. class with no Lecture Capture. 

For me, failure was wasting the valuable opportunity of getting to attend Brown. I approached my first year at Brown with immense gratitude. I was grateful that Brown saw some potential in me that was worth cultivating. I was grateful that, within one generation, the daughter of two Vietnamese refugees could ascend to the Ivory Tower. I was grateful that, one day, I would be able to walk up to my parents in a cap and gown as a college graduate and say, “This is all because of you.” Throughout my first year, this sense of gratitude led me to be terrified of failure. I was scared of making any mistake that would make it seem like I didn’t deserve to be at Brown or that I didn’t belong here. 

This fear of failure silenced my voice in class discussions. I remember walking home every Monday night after my first-year seminar, disappointed in myself for not having spoken up. Every week, I sat and listened for two and a half hours to my classmates’ thought-provoking and scholarly answers to our professor’s discussion questions. Even the simple thought of raising my hand made my heart race. 

For most of that semester, I lived in constant fear of failure. Gradually, that fear drained my confidence and made me question my place at Brown. 

In the last month of that semester, I got the advice from another student to raise my hand at the start of class. I could come into class with one prepared comment to say, and then sit back and listen for the rest of the seminar. It was a baby step. It helped to build my confidence, knowing that, if I said the wrong thing or made a mistake, people would likely forget about it by the end of the class period. Slowly, I gained more confidence in sharing my thoughts in the classroom. 

Professor Tannenbaum was right. It turned out that my fear of failing was the very cause of what I defined as failure — wasting my Brown education. I challenge us all to think about a time when we felt like we failed at Brown. 

In retrospect, whatever we might have experienced and considered as failure at the time may have turned out to be something quite different. Perhaps those examples of perceived failure were instances of confidence-in-the-making. Even if in those moments it seemed like our self-confidence was waning, Brown’s confidence in us never did. Brown never lost its confidence in our ability to chart our own academic pathways, to choose our own grade options, to shop courses and know which ones align with our unique goals, and to decide until reading period if a class maybe just wasn’t for us. The Open Curriculum is Brown’s ultimate show of confidence in our intellectual abilities and decision-making capacity as students. 

Here at Brown, failure is not merely accepted; it’s encouraged. Why? Because Brown’s ethos of self-exploration recognizes that failure is a catalyst for confidence and growth in a way that success alone cannot foster. 

As we prepare for the world beyond the Van Wickle Gates, I urge us to welcome failure with open arms. These past four years have been an experiment in confidence building, by teaching us to trust our instincts and to have faith in our ability to discern a path forward. 

Be confident, Class of 2020. May we stay ever true — to the spirit of Brown, to the good in the world and, above all, to ourselves.

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