The first time Tim Bono wanted to drop out of Washington University in St. Louis, he was a month into his freshman year.
“I was totally in over my head,” recalled Bono, now assistant dean for assessment and analytics, and a lecturer in psychological & brain sciences in Arts & Sciences. “I believed that the admissions office made a mistake, that I wasn’t smart enough to be here.”
Bono already had started to request transfer applications from other universities when he showed up in tears at the officer of his adviser, longtime dean Henry Biggs. They agreed Bono should drop his advanced calculus class and add instead an introductory social sciences class — more in line with his natural interests. But, more importantly, Biggs told Bono that struggle was a good thing.
“He said, ‘Don’t let yourself get too comfortable because that’s when you stop growing,’ ” Bono recalled. “That gave me the shift in perspective that I needed. The work didn’t get easier, but when I encountered difficulty, I knew I needed to take a different approach, not run away.”
The second time Bono wanted to quit, he was working toward his PhD in psychology. He had submitted work on implicit social cognition to a number of academic journals only to be rejected by every single editor.
“No one was interested in the research I was doing,” Bono said. “No one thought I was making a substantive contribution to that field.
“I thought, ‘Maybe this is a sign I’m not cut out to be an academic researcher.’ I decided that I as going to keep at it, but that I also really need a solid Plan B.”
That’s when Bono learned of a graduate fellow program in residential life. There, he met first-year students who reminded him of his freshman self — kids who couldn’t find their footing socially or academically.
“I wanted to know if there were warning signs that could give us an indication of which students might have difficulty so we could intervene,” Bono said.
His PhD adviser told him that the emerging field of positive psychology might provide some answers. Bono immersed himself in the research and discovered how the science of well-being could benefit college students.
Since then, academic journals and mainstream outlets have published Bono’s work in positive psychology. He has presented at top conferences, and his course in positive psychology ranks as an undergraduate favorite.
“Positive psychology is far and away the most exciting topic I could pursue,” Bono said. “If not for those early stumbles, I would not be teaching and studying positive psychology today. None of this would have happened if I didn’t let go of those original plans.”
Of course, it’s easy for Bono to see the bright side. He has a PhD in happiness. But Bono says anyone can grow from failure.
“The best any of us can do is approach life like a scientist,” Bono said. “You collect data, you test hypotheses, and then you go with the best information available. And, like most experiments, you’ll make mistakes.
“But only through those failures can you discover what your true path is.”
The Fail Better series showcases Washington University staff, faculty and students who have failed big — sometimes in very public, humiliating ways. Despite the disappointment, they all learned vital lessons about themselves and their work. View all the stories in the series here.