Letter: On Failure

After a challenging tournament, an alumni and former captain penned this letter to his high school team.

It addresses the most formidable challenge we face as speakers and as people: failure. 

Hello team! It’s 4:45 in the morning (quarter to five for my fellow Brits) here in London, but there are more important things to do than sleep right now.

Congratulations are in order for the three speakers who made it to quarters this tournament. That’s a huge achievement. Bidding at one of the best national competitions of the year isn’t any small feat and deserves much praise.

That being said. I know firsthand that it isn’t easy to deal with not breaking.

I didn’t advance at this tournament until my senior year, after a failed attempt in my sophomore year (IX dropped prelims) AND my junior year (one rank off in both USX and IX, also prelims).

And then I made finals. Funnily enough, I was sad that I didn’t go any higher than 5th.

The arduous atmosphere of tournaments (let alone national circuit ones) can give you both an unparalleled dopamine rush at your high points and a serious loss of self-esteem at your worst.

So here are a (maybe) helpful couple of tips to think about tonight; take it as you will. Most of you know this already, but a reminder is healthy.

First, results do not define your self-worth.

It may sound easy to say this.

Especially since the visceral reaction most of you will have to me is that I should be the last person to talk about this in any meaningful way, result chasing as I was.

I was wrong.

When you one day depart high school forever, you will enter the outside world (or, in the case of policy debaters, touch grass for the first time).

You will be confronted by people who are better than you.

Good at Physics? Tough, you’re no Einstein. How about the college you go to? Well, it’s no Harvard. Good at football (ok fine, soccer)? You aren’t Messi (undisputed GOAT). Good at rapping? You’re no Kanye (on second thought… maybe that isn’t such a bad thing).

And you know what, that’s ok. 

We’re all individuals with our unique strengths and weaknesses.

Maybe you can crochet frog hats or teach kids calculus; maybe you were in the top 0.0001% of Taylor Swift or (god help us) BTS listeners on Spotify this year.

Perhaps even more importantly, we all have our weaknesses. For example, Magnus Carlsen baselessly accused someone not much older than us of cheating. 

PS: Shortly after I wrote this letter, Magnus would lose two games, one to Anish Giri, and one to 18-year-old Abdusattarov!

Kanye is, well, Kanye, and Harvard has serious issues surrounding student mental health.

Just because other people may live lives that appear more conventionally successful does not mean they are happier or intrinsically “better” than you. In my experience, they usually aren’t.

We’re all human. And remember, every great person started somewhere. Magnus wasn’t born Magnus, nor Einstein, Einstein.

Strive to become better than who you were yesterday, not who someone else is today. You are worthy because you are you. 

It takes tremendous effort to get up every day and compete in a debate tournament on your weekend off; I am proud of you for that.

“The result is irrelevant because the effort was there.” (Twitch streamer, circa 2020).

Second, “the greatest teacher, failure is.” 

Franklin Roosevelt once said, “It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” Here’s the reality. You’re going to fail. A lot. Most of you will not get into the college of your dreams on the first try. Or that coveted golden goose internship you really, really wanted. 

And it hurts. It hurts to be considered unworthy, and it hurts to fail; especially when everyone else around you appears to succeed. I’m not going to offer you words that will make the sting of loss feel any less painful. These words won’t.

It took me two and a half years and over 50 tournaments to acquire my first state point. 

And I’m glad it did.

My repeated frustration taught me that I needed to correct my mistakes. It taught me the value of perseverance, patience, and breaking in a glove the right way (please tell me someone gets that reference). 

And most importantly, the skills I learned were transferable. My time in speech is the only reason I’m confident now. The structures that defined my points now define my essays. My conviction to keep on failing when everyone else chose to leave the flight has empowered me to succeed in ways few can. 

Addendum: Something competitive speech does very well is stress you out. Once you graduate, you’ll be a lot less stressed, and it’ll show. The post-speech glow up is not a myth, people!

Roosevelt himself fell ill and spent nearly a decade out of the political sphere. It taught him humility, grace, and wisdom that many (particularly recent) Presidents never learned. He didn’t get it on his first try, either. 

Goodnight, team. Very few of you will see this, as most of you don’t check a four-generation old Slack (almost Sohail Jouya old). Fewer still will care. But if this resonates with someone, I’m proud to have spent time writing it. 

With love, Arjun.

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