Success-Failure Project

leaves icon The mission of The Success-Failure Project is to create opportunities for discussion, reflection, understanding, and creative engagement regarding issues of success, failure, and resilience.


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The Project encourages students and others in the University community to grapple with questions like:
  • Who defines what constitutes success and failure in my life?
  • What makes me feel fulfilled and what do I define as a success?
  • What am I working for?  Who am I working for?
  • Where do my beliefs about success and failure come from?
  • What does it mean to be responsible for, to learn from, or just to suffer, both my successes and my failures?
  • What factors and feelings play a role in success and failure?  What about ambition, creativity, perfectionism, luck, joy, obligation, competition, integrity, fear, talent, and collaboration?
  • What does it mean to be a good, successful, even excellent student and human being?

Frequently Asked Questions

What does The Success-Failure Project do?
The Project aims to create opportunities for conversation and reflection — through panel discussions, workshops, evening dialogues with faculty, and other events — about the experience and meaning of success, failure, mistakes, rejection, and resilience.
Ariel Phillips coordinates the Project. Feel free to email her at or
Why is this even an issue? Don’t we all understand what we mean by SUCCESS and FAILURE?
Actually, people vary in how they understand those terms, and it makes a big difference for how we work and live. For example, when we focus on avoiding mistakes and failures — both of which are inevitable parts of life and work — we fail to consider what makes us curious and engaged, and that can inhibit creativity and innovation. For this reason, sometimes it’s important to define success as a learning process, not just as an outcome.
How do I know if my definition of SUCCESS or FAILURE is getting in my way?
Here are some common signs that we are struggling with these ideas: 
  • Debilitating procrastination. If we define success and failure narrowly, we can be desperate to avoid making mistakes. This avoidance  can turn us into severe procrastinators who worry about failure to the point where we jeopardize academic and professional goals.
  • Focusing on catastrophic outcomes. Bad outcomes are sometimes a reality, and it’s natural to be distracted by that possibility at times. But frequently worrying about the worst possible outcomes can take enormous amounts of attention and can sap energy from creative, fulfilling tasks.
  • Severe self-criticism. If we see failure as inexcusable, there’s no room for error or for being in a process of learning. So mistakes and failures leave us feeling deeply guilty or ashamed, and we may punish ourselves when they (inevitably) happen.
  • Withholding our work and ideas from others. When we think people who matter a great deal to us have rigid views of success and failure, we naturally want them to see us only at our best. That can lead us to refrain from sharing our work until we believe we have something impressive to share, sometimes setting impossible standards for ourselves.
  • Perfectionism. If we are perpetually disappointed in our performance, if we can’t bear to fail, or if we feel we must succeed at everything right away, this means we have unreasonable goals; we’re perfectionistic.
  • Being crushed by setbacks. It’s only human to be disappointed, confused, or angry about a serious setback. But by holding onto a definition of success that punishes failures and creates a feeling of shame, we can become deeply wounded when we commit an error, and it can take a long time to recover.
  • Repeatedly starting over on a project. Sometimes, starting over is the only thing to do. But, if we do it often, it can be a sign of an all-or-nothing view of success and failure. A rocky start seems like a failure because we’ve defined success and failure so rigidly that we’ve created a barrier to work.

So, you’re saying FAILURE is good?

It’s neither good nor bad, but it is inevitable. When we’re learning or trying something new, we can assume we will make mistakes or fail at some point. If we allow ourselves to feel the difficult emotions that may accompany our setbacks — sadness, confusion, disappointment, frustration, or others — while also framing the failure as part of a learning process, we can reap huge benefits.


What about my family’s and my friends’ definitions of SUCCESS?

The main characters in our lives often play big roles in how we define success and failure. Sometimes they’re supportive of our efforts to re-examine these ideas. When they are, the relationship often deepens. But it can also can be challenging to have these conversations when people have strong opinions. The Bureau of Study Counsel staff welcomes this kind of exploration.


Won’t I lose motivation if I’m not afraid of failing?

If fear of failing has been your main motivator, it might take a while before you can find other ways to engage. However, fear of failing is only one possible source of motivation, and you may find sources that better tap your curiosity and actually bring joy. It may be helpful to talk with someone as you explore this, and the Bureau of Study Counsel is one place where conversations like this are always welcome.


Can I explore SUCCESS and FAILURE before I talk with someone or attend an event?

Yes! Our website has many materials including faculty stories of rejection, how views of success and failure change over time, alumni reflecting on success and failure, and first-generation students sharing their perspective.



Alumni Interview Project

Watch videos of Harvard alumni from past decades reflecting on the meaning of "success" and "failure" in their work and lives as they listen to audio recordings of their younger selves.



Beyond the Success Paradigm

View portraits of Harvard College alumni and read their stories about experiences that have influenced their sense of self, their expectations, and their definitions of success and failure.



Reflections on Rejections

Watch Harvard faculty, deans, staff and alums reflect on their experiences with rejection and see some of the actual letters they received.



First-Gen Voices

Listen to audio recordings of first-generation college students at Harvard speaking with someone who matters to them in this collaboration with StoryCorps.



We’ve selected some materials from our website that have particular relevance for these four themes.

Alumni Interview Project

Arthur Campbell '66
Professor of Law

Arthur Campbell's Interview

M K Merelice '62
Activist, writer, and editor

Beyond the Success Paradigm

Keith Grubb

I would tell my younger self that spending time reflecting on your experiences is of utmost importance. Understanding yourself and your relationships with others makes it significantly easier to stick to your values.

Keith Grubb
Harvard College, Class of 2013

Reflections on Rejections

Keerthi Reddy

"I think I was really attached to [the idea of having a travel fellowship] because I was feeling afraid of being so uncertain…"

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Robert Kegan

"How openheartedly do you want to live in the world? How much do you want to let yourself love, desire, and hope?"

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Sean Palfrey

"I had to accept that after doing basic research for four years that that wasn't really where my heart was ..."

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First-Gen Voices


david chang & janice anderson

“Do right by them…because they did right by me”

 David discusses with his mentor Janice Anderson what his family did for him as a child.


Read the Transcript

“Do right by them…because they did right by me”

David:  Friend, Student
Ms. Anderson:  Mentor

David: The first way of looking at the term “first generation” is how it speaks, how it resonates with me on a personal level. So, knowing that my parents came here in ‘94, together in San Diego, and uh, knowing that the reasons why they came here, uh, kind of gives me a sense of expectations. Not because they were pressuring me to, like, attend these prestigious institutions, but more like, I wanted to do right by them, because they’ve done right by me.

Uh, I remember a time in my life, where uh, you know, my mom would always tell me, like, to – it was important to work hard but also important to have dreams, right? You know, not, to think about achieving those dreams, even if they’re implausible in the moment and always to keep working towards those dreams.

So, you know, um, we weren’t necessarily in the best economic situation at the time. And still, right now, we’re sort of struggling a little bit. But uh, back when I was young my mother would take us to the library all the time, she would like – she had these little cardboard boxes that she would uh paste over with wallpaper, and we would load books into them and then bring them home cause we couldn’t afford to buy all those books at the time. So we made like biweekly trips to the library, land we’d load up on these books, and then come home and read them.

Note about copyright, attribution, and citation:  StoryCorps holds the copyright to the audio recordings of interviews and to the photographs of the participants; StoryCorps has licensed limited use of those to the Bureau of Study Counsel/Harvard University.  Harvard University owns the copyright to all other material on the First-Gen Voices website (  Quotations of the transcripts and translations of interviews from the website by parties other than StoryCorps and the Bureau of Study Counsel should be attributed/cited as follows: “This excerpt is from a website created by the Bureau of Study Counsel of Harvard University with interviews recorded by StoryCorps (, a national nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and share humanity's stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.”