"Is There Anyone Else Here Who Feels Like A Failure?"

by Kate Stone Lombardi '78

Sad Stuffed Cow

For some time, Laurie Bennett ’99 had been following the EphAlum Facebook page dubbed “You Know You Went to Williams If….” Generally, the page was full of happy alumni reminiscences, occasionally sprinkled through with struggles and challenges Ephs faced during or after their time in the Purple Valley.

Then, one day in late October, Laurie herself was struggling. She posted something she’d been mulling, saying that she hoped “maybe a few people would respond, and maybe we could chat”:

I know this isn’t the purpose of this group, and it’s probably less warranted than the earlier departures to talk about racism. But… Is there anyone else here who feels like a failure? I look at all the people I knew who went to Williams, and I don’t measure up in any way to any of them/you. At 43, I haven’t got a career, I can’t figure out what to do with myself, and I am lonely. I’ve never submitted anything to class notes because I never felt like I had anything worth submitting, and a lot of people didn’t know me in the first place anyway. Is there anyone else in the ‘I’m a loser’ Eph club?

Her question was accompanied by a photo of a sad-looking stuffed purple cow, slumped, face first, on a fading yellow chair. At last count, the post had more than 500 likes and more than 400 comments.

“It wasn’t about the degree but about the club,” Laurie told me later. “That somehow you were a member of this exclusive club, so you should measure up.” 

To say that her post resonated is an understatement. Many Ephs posted about feeling the same way. “I’m 41, a divorced single parent, chronically broke,” wrote Grace Pritchard Burson ’00. “I’m fairly happy but certainly not successful by any typical measure.” 

And Liana Thompson Knight ’01 shared, “My goodness, I totally relate! I’m 41 and have no career to speak of… in the past ten years, most of the work I have done has only required a high school diploma.”

Others offered advice and connection. As Christian Torres ’13 wrote: “Most important thing I learned is to stop comparing myself to other people. Show compassion to you yourself and live the life you want to live. Williams is not your identity but, rather, you are a part of Williams’ identity.” Older alums offered the long-term perspective, saying feelings of inadequacy diminished with age. Many Ephs thanked Laurie for her honesty and bravery. 

Laurie did end up launching a new Facebook page for Williams alums called the Mucho Macho Moocow Alumni Support Group. More on that later. But the response to her initial post is telling. How many of us feel that we’re not measuring up? What does it mean to be a Williams alum? Is there something or somewhere we’re “supposed” to be? How do we define success? And to what extent does all this just reflect the limits and distortions of social media?

The last question is the easiest. There’s been plenty written about how spending time on social media is linked to depression, because it’s so often an exercise in comparing your insides to someone else’s outsides. Rare is the post captioned, “Here I am with greasy hair, after a three-hour fight with my ex over child support. The purple circles of fatigue under my eyes are my Eph shout out.” With notable—and courageous—exceptions, we post polished, ready-for-prime-time versions of our life. Or we post nothing at all. 

Are class notes, or any of the other communications we share with the college any different? 

“All we ever hear of each other through the alumni magazine and class notes are these good stories we create,” says Dena Zaldúa ‘98, who responded to Laurie’s post and joined her spinoff support group. “It’s like an echo chamber, so we begin to think that all these people have achieved so much, and I’ve done so little.” She continues, “Am I going to open up class notes and see people struggling with mental health or losing their job? Except to brag about our accomplishments, it feels like it’s not worthy to be included. I’m always eternally grateful to people who are open, and in the Williams sphere we lose that.”

To some extent this isn’t just a Williams phenomenon but one that pertains to any elite institution. A quick Google search reveals plenty of people who attended Ivy League colleges and feel like utter failures. They compare themselves to classmates who have won Nobel Prizes or are CEOs or university presidents or are running the World Bank. Their own alumni notes are filled with updates featuring high-profile classmates with highly compensated jobs, so they feel like outliers with nothing to say.

Williams, of course, is a smaller school with a smaller pond of super-achievers. But there are still plenty. And if you let it, it can make you feel like you’re the only one who lives a humdrum life at best. That feeling of being outcast only intensifies if you are struggling to get by financially, personally or emotionally. Judging from the intense response to Laurie’s post, many Ephs have grappled with that kind of thinking. 

“There are an awful lot of us who aren’t doing what we thought we’d be doing,” says Flo Waldron ’95, who responded to Laurie’s post and became an administrator on the new Eph support group. “Life is not what we thought it would look like when we were in our 20s.”

Flo was focused on one goal after graduation—becoming a college professor. Step one: Get a doctorate before she was 30. Check. Step two: Land a tenure-track position. That didn’t happen. Graduate programs produce far more Ph.D.s in history than there are job openings. Along the way, Flo developed serious medical issues, underwent multiple surgeries, got married and had kids, one of whom inherited the rare genetic mutation that had so compromised Flo’s health. Eventually Flo became a professional blogger (founder of supermomhacks.com), a career path that didn’t even exist when she graduated.

At first, Flo didn’t find it easy to share these life detours with classmates. She’d read about people in her class “making millions” while she was struggling paycheck to paycheck. But at her 15th reunion, Flo discovered other classmates who weren’t where they thought they “should” be. One suffered from chronic depression, another was on personal disability and confided that she was too ashamed to contribute to class notes. And even those who achieved their professional goals weren’t guaranteed happiness in their careers.  

In other words, life happens to everyone who graduated from Williams, and it hits some harder than others. 

Many of the responses to Laurie’s “Loser Eph” post pointed out that time tends to cure the belief that if you’re not a superstar, you’ve failed. As Jenny Griffin ’91 weighed in: “Later reunions, say 25 and beyond, can be heartening because you realize life doesn’t spare anyone—ups or downs—and that we all have to face aging (if we’re lucky) and sometimes unmet expectations. Conversations are better. People are funnier, deeper. And they’re much more interested in who you are, where you’ve been, what you think, than what your job is or has been.” 

Mark Robert Barr ’89 wrote, “I dropped out and floundered for quite a bit. Even when I got back on my feet, and marriage and kids compelled a sense of direction, I felt behind and second-rate. I hated getting the alumni magazine. But at some point, I just didn’t care anymore. And I realized that neither did any of my old classmates.”

And no, not everyone who went to Williams has become an investment banker, a lawyer, a doctor or a star in academia. As you read Bicentennial stories, you’ll discover a wide variety of paths taken post-Williams.

Of course, the type of success that can be measured by job title, awards and degrees that easily translates into alumni publications is just that—one type of success. As so many Ephs commented on Laurie’s post, there are so many other ways to measure it: by your happiness, your contributions to improving the world, your decency as a human being, your spiritual fulfillment, and on and on. Maybe for you making $100 million is success. Or maybe it’s being a great dad. Maybe you must sacrifice one kind of success to achieve another. 

Ultimately, Laurie did create a spinoff support group page for Ephs: the Mucho Macho Moocow Alumni Support Group, a reference to the now defunct Williams College marching band. The vibe is intimate and supportive. As administrator, Laurie insists upon only one thing: “I am VERY FIRM about kindness. I’m hoping it won’t come to this, but if someone is mean, I shall boot the person,” she says up front.

Different threads include personal transformation, handling grief and anxiety. Inspirational memes abound. Humor is mixed throughout; a recent favorite, posted by Dena, was a Halloween tweet: “Going as a Former Gifted Child and the whole costume is just gonna be people asking, ‘What are you supposed to be?’ and me saying, “I was supposed to be a lot of things.’” Flo started a section called “Friday Wins,” inviting Ephs to comment on their accomplishments of the week. NOT the “I just got promoted to senior VP” type wins. More like, “I finally got my dishwasher fixed,” or “My kid tested negative for Covid.” 

What is most striking about the group is that, in the end, it’s Williams folks supporting Williams folks. The Ephs who participate had varied experiences at college and range in age and experience. Yet, the very people who didn’t feel part of the larger Williams alumni community have come together to form another. Which is of course, part of the larger Williams alumni community.

As the Society of Alumni celebrates its bicentennial, it aspires to be a place “where every Eph can see themselves and find a home, no matter where they came from or what their futures may hold.” as co-chairs Aroop Mukharji ’09 and Laura Moberg Lavoie ’99 have written in communications about the celebration. “It should be a place of warmth, of welcoming, of support.”

“We just didn’t have an outlet to be our whole, full selves,” Dena says. “Williams is such a small community to begin with, and to me Williams is your family. Especially in times like this, we need connection. And family is all about connection, not tooting our own horns.”

That home seems to be becoming more expansive and comfortable, in no small part because of Laurie Bennett’s post, made on a day when she was feeling particularly low. 

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