Five months ago, I started working nights at a restaurant. Though the restaurant is cozy and well-attended, I noticed something peculiar: many diners were not communicating with each other. They were distracted by their screens. Disturbed, I wrote an op-ed and published it in The Seattle Times. At the end of the article, I included this short bio:
“Shoshana Wineburg graduated from Stanford University in 2009 with a degree in American Studies. She waits tables in Seattle.”
Comments ensued. Most people responded to the article’s content; others could care less. They wanted to talk about my degree. One user wrote that my bio was “the saddest part of the article.” Someone else said my degree was not “worthwhile,” and that waiting tables after graduating from Stanford was “kinda depressing.”
I haven’t just waited tables after Stanford. I’ve done other things. But that’s beside the point. The point is that the comments represent a value system that measures success by achievement and income, not character. This is a type of success our culture breeds, a type of success that pervades our high schools and college campuses. We strive for status. We are defined by our name-brands. We are measured by our income.
I know this value system because I encountered it at Stanford. I know it intimately because I subscribed to it.
Like many other students, once I got to campus, I started looking forward. I made a post-college five-year plan. I had it all figured out.
Until I didn’t.
The problem was that as I equated my self-worth with my achievement, I got sick. It started as stress. Then it mushroomed into crippling anxiety. I spent days with a tightened chest and knotted stomach. The anxiety festered. By winter quarter junior year, I was miserable. I walked around campus with a plastered smile and glassy eyes exhausted from holding back tears. I slid into depression. Negative voices suffocated me. Writing my essays took forever. I imagined getting D’s. You’re worthless, the voices whispered. You’re a fraud.
The following quarter was my quarter abroad. I was supposed to go to France. I convinced myself that the Eifel Tower would solve my problems. Who gets depressed in Paris? How could chocolate croissants not make me happy?
I got worse. I lost my concentration. I couldn’t read because I couldn’t register the words. I struggled to speak. Sentences came out disjointed, thoughts incoherent. I had sleepless nights and my eyes started twitching. I would walk around with my hand clasped to my chest, because the pain throbbed. Complex thoughts shriveled to simple ones. Could I get through the day? How much more could I tolerate? How much longer could I last?
I never got to enjoy the croissant because food lost its taste. I stopped eating. I stopped talking. I stopped living.
Had I not had a best friend with me, I don’t know what would have happened. Her presence was my blessing. It was she who convinced me to go home. She told me that I had been strong, but the real strength would be to admit that I needed help.
So I did the unthinkable for someone who had been hard-wired to succeed. I dropped out of Stanford-in Paris. I failed.
Here’s what failure teaches you. Failure teaches you humility. Failure teaches you are more than your shortcomings; your humanity extends beyond the W’s on your transcript. Failure teaches you gratitude. It forces you to reexamine what’s important and appreciate all you have. Failure is impermanent. You get through it. Along the way, you cultivate perspective. And empathy. And compassion. You learn that despite the fall, you’ll be okay.
When I got back to school, I promised myself that I would live with integrity. I dropped the honors and the double major. I spent my senior year taking classes that resonated with me. I took meaningful classes, classes that forced me to think critically, ethically, and philosophically.
Failure gave me the courage to pursue different paths and paradigms of success. After graduating, I spent time at a religious institute in Jerusalem. I worked with an NGO doing community empowerment with Israel’s Ethiopian Community. I lived on a mountain in Peru and taught English in the Andes.
Now, I’ve returned to the US. And, yes, at night, I work in a restaurant. It’s good money and it pays my bills. It’s not permanent. I don’t aspire to serve food my whole life. But for now, it’s what I’m doing.
We all want to find stable and satisfying employment. But ultimately who we are—how we think, how we communicate, how we empathize, how we love—is just as much a part of success as achievement. Too often we value the latter at the expense of the former. Too often, that recipe makes us sick.
I won’t be made sick. Not again.
Shoshana Wineburg grew up in Seattle, Washington. She graduated from Stanford in 2009 with a degree in American Studies. Following graduation, she lived in Israel and Peru and waited tables in between. She currently works at a restaurant in Seattle.