There’s a lot of crap–ahem, writing,–circulating on the internet about how young adults are just generally making a mess of things. Young adults are being told that they’re lazy, that they don’t like to get things done, and that they’re burned out. I tend to think that the problem is not lack of a work ethic, but rather that as a general group of young adults, we’re incredibly risk-averse.
What exactly does that mean? Michael J. Lewis, a professor at Williams College, illustrates this through a phenomenon he saw in his history course. Year after year, he offered two exam questions for students to select; one was a dry, straightforward question, and the other was a more creative prompt. When Dr. Lewis first began teaching in 1993, everyone chose the more whimsical essay, but now, almost no one does. It’s not that students aren’t capable, it’s that they are terrified to risk losing points on the question that’s more of a variable. That fear of risk, and ultimately of failure, is deeply rooted in us from childhood on.
A recent BuzzFeed editorial, How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation, discussed how today’s young adults are struggling – not because they’re lazy, but because they’ve been trained to optimize themselves non-stop, and in the meantime, have learned to fear failure. The same ambition that was rewarded in childhood is now turning into an unhealthy fear that limits young adults’ choices.
When succeeding in the system feels essential, the breeding ground for fear is abundant. Dr. William Deresiewicz, a former Yale faculty member and essayist, writes, “You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error.” Ultimately, whether it’s a career choice, a move across the country, or even just an exam question, young adults aren’t as willing to take a risk because of the potential for failure.
But what if the potential for error, or failure, was taken out of the equation? What possibilities would that open up? What would we consider doing? How bold would we be if we felt unlimited by our fear of failure?
I sent a Google form to young adults from all over the country asking a simple question:
What would you do if you knew you could not fail?
An overwhelming number of responses had to do with finding the courage to pursue a certain career or educational path:
“If I knew I could not fail, I would be a traditional artist. Someone who worked with watercolor or acrylic and painted anything and everything that people would let me put my paintbrush on. I would tell stories through art, through the movement of a brush.” - Emily Kucala, 21
“I would go back to school. My first time around at college I didn’t live up to my true potential. It kept me from getting into the masters program I wanted. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted that PhD behind my name and I’ve been so scared to try again.” - Kellie Windsor, 27
“I’d start a career in music. I want to be a singer-songwriter and know that I won’t be turned away or rejected. I’d love to follow this dream, but it’s scary to be so uncertain of my future.” - Molly Cate Sansoucy, 18
Several answers discussed meaningful ideas for creating social change:
“If I knew I could not fail, I would open my own school or create my own school system to help reinvent public education for the modern era, with less focus on bureaucratic test-taking and delineated programs of learning, and more emphasis on student-empowerment and actionable, pragmatic education.” - Brian Powell
“I would open my own zoo. I want to work with animals, and owning my own zoo that served as a sanctuary for wild animals has always been a dream. Every year so many animals are tossed aside as people have tried to have them as pets but cannot provide or handle them properly. I want to help efforts of species conservation while also giving these animals a proper home.” - Caroline Hawk, 19
“I would strive to help others. If I can never fail in helping someone, if I can always find and get them what they need, I would do it all the time. Sometimes I have to step back because I can't help someone in the way I want to and it hurts me to be unable to help. I would also mentor people. If I could always successfully mentor and guide someone to their best abilities, to the best opportunities, to their best success? I would in a heartbeat.” - McKenna Mollner, 18
Many people wanted the confidence to travel, adventure, and make a big move:
“I would move out of the USA and hop head first into an intensive yoga teacher training in India!” - Jordan Edmiston, 21
“I would move across the country and work for United Nations. This has been my dream since 2nd grade, but I have never felt like moving and getting a job there would be possible.” - Rebecca Schaechter, 20
“Move to London to become a filmmaker!” - Anonymous, 17
“Climb to the top of Mt. Everest.” - Anonymous, 21
Others were focused on living a bolder lifestyle in general:
“I would more confidently go in the direction of my dreams, without fearing losing people in the process as I move, change, and grow.” - Erica Wammock, 24
“If I couldn’t fail, I really would do everything. I personally have a big fear of failing, so if I didn’t have to worry about that, I would do absolutely everything with no fear. That is the best way to live life. I feel like if you didn’t have to worry about failing, you could truly live life to its fullest.” - Jordan Pyle, 17
“Talk to people, make new friends, learn all that I could, and do everything that makes me happy without holding back.” - Anonymous, 20
“As much as I could. I would go after my dreams and make them a reality.” - Jack Riordan, 20
I received so many unique and passionate answers that it was impossible to include them all, but if I could say one thing to everyone: Do it anyways, regardless of the fear.
Answers have been lightly edited for grammar and length.
Savannah is 20 and is a student at Transylvania (not a school for vampires, she promises) studying International Affairs and German. She spends her time traveling when she can, in the library when she has to be, and probably too much time in front of the mirror not quite getting her eyeliner even. She enjoys theater, music, and civic engagement, and would like to pursue diplomacy in the future.