Failing wall

A final project in a Theater, Dance and Media class asks Harvard community members to reflect upon the opposite of success. 

By Samantha Neville '19

Sarah Grammar ‘18 failed her portion of the Fear of Failure Project.

“Part of my part of the project was to have something going on in the dining halls,” Grammar said. “Unfortunately while the project was going on I got very sick that weekend. And so my part of the project basically failed, which I think was just an interesting component of the entire piece itself.”

Courtesy Fear of Failure Project Facebook page
The Fear of Failure Project was part of the final for The Artist-Citizen: Socially Engaged Art in the 21st Century, a class with four students taught by Katie Pearl, a visiting faculty member in the Theater, Dance and Media concentration. The focus of the seminar was the role of the artist in building community life.  

The  project had several components. The main part took place publicly Dec. 4-8 and was 8-by-16-foot paper “wall” on the gate of Harvard Yard across from the Science Center Plaza. People submitted their perceived failures anonymously in an online forum, and the submissions were printed and posted on the wall.

One of Grammar’s favorite submissions was: “I failed to overcome fear of failure by challenging myself.”

“Some people consider small personal failures to be a lot bigger than somebody else does,” Grammar said. “And those failures aren’t any less valid. I think failure is more of a personal relationship to what we want or we expect to happen and then what actually does happen.”

The other parts of the project were a forum focusing on a discussion of the event, a 30-minute video of Harvard community members sharing failures and a Facebook page about the project. The Facebook page explains the mission as follows:

At a university that is an international beacon of success, it is really easy to fall into the trap of only focusing on our successes and the successes of others and never accepting or acknowledging our failures. What kind of environment does this create in a community whose hallmark is an overemphasis on some elusive notion of “success”? Do we hold ourselves back from doing things we think we might inevitably fail at? Do we stop our own growth because we fear being anything other than a “success”?

The project was inspired by Candy Chang’s participatory public art project Before I Die, which the students studied in class. That project asked members of the community in New Orleans to complete the phrase “Before I die…”  Since its original installation, Before I Die has taken place in more than 70 countries.

In the TDM class, students kept a notebook modeling the Chang project by listing topics that matter to them in the format: “I care about…”

“The thing that the project most gave me was a progression towards an acceptance of my whole self and the whole self of others,” Grammar said, “Realizing that people are more than just their successes, and that’s actually what makes them really interesting people.”

Grammar enjoyed watching people react to the Harvard wall. Next time, she said, she’d like to add another component.

“Adding [a] component of interaction between the audience and the wall itself would have been really exciting to see,” she said.