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“I’ve failed in jobs, I’ve failed in relationships, and I’ve failed with ideas that I thought were brilliant,” said Greg Victory, Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs and Fannie Mitchell Executive Director of the Duke Career Center. “But I’ve taken something away from each failure.”

Victory was introducing FAIL FEST, a recent storytelling event that drew students from across Duke to hear “fail tales,” authentic stories from their peers about navigating adversity and the path from failure to growth. After sharing his own story—about leaving his first post-college teaching job midway through the year for a healthcare fundraising position he called “a terrible way to spend 18 months”—he explained how that experience taught him “about what’s important to me and what I value in my work and in my life. If I hadn’t made that decision, I may not have been as committed to my subsequent roles.”

The event—co-hosted by Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship (Duke I&E) and the Duke Career Center—was designed to help students shift their mindset around failure, according to Duke I&E Senior Program Coordinator Solomon Valentine. “Failure can be incredibly scary for Duke students,” Valentine said. “But failure is an inherent part of life, and resilience is a vital part of the entrepreneurial mindset. The speakers at FAIL FEST really showed this with the moving and inspirational stories they shared.”

“What we know from research is that the growth you get from failure only happens from reflection,” remarked Duke I&E Director Jamie Jones after hearing the students’ stories. “I hope you embody the courage you saw in your peers tonight. Take a chance, try something you find uncomfortable, take a course that scares you, bring an idea to life that challenges you. I guarantee there will be failures along the way, but I think you’ll find it incredibly rewarding.”

HIGHLIGHTS FROM STUDENTS’ “FAIL TALES”

Alphonso Blades Jr. ’24

After putting in “more work than [he] ever thought possible,” and during the most important season of the football career he’d worked his whole life to build, Alphonso Blades Jr. ’24 and his teammates had to go on hiatus due to Covid. Then, following a health exam, a doctor spoke to him privately—Al had a heart condition and may never play football again. He embarked on a journey to grow an online community, gain self-awareness and a “coffee bean mindset,” and finally return to the football field, having to rebuild all his skills. “Now nothing can sever my ties with who I am.”

Kaitlyn Maher ’25

Since getting her start as the youngest contestant on America’s Got Talent at just four years old, Kaitlyn Maher ’25 has performed in high-pressure environments countless times. And as a veteran performer, she knows that no matter how much you prepare, there will be times when you fail—like while you’re singing the national anthem in front of tens of thousands of people. “When you’re faced with a situation with high stakes, and you fail, don’t shut others out.”

Javier Casado Cocero MBA ’24

After several shifts and pivots in his career ambitions—from medicine, to pharmaceutical research, to pharmaceutical sales—Javier Casado Cocero MBA ’24 entered Duke’s MBA program, wanting to pursue his passion for digital technologies. He founded AnonID, an authentication system that doesn’t require third-party data, and built a strategy that he and his team were confident in. But after a rollercoaster summer spent attempting to fundraise, Javier adjusted his goals for the company to get to the next step. “You have to take a chance on yourself, especially if you’re asking others to take a chance on you.

Alexander Pieroni ’25

Alexander Pieroni ’25 grew up dreaming of becoming an archaeologist, digging in the sandbox and later hoping to one day make a museum-worthy discovery. But when he joined his first dig at just seventeen, working on what was once a bustling Roman road, he damaged a priceless artifact—and in doing so, learned much deeper lessons about failure, resilience, curiosity, and the lessons we can take from those who lived so long ago.