An open letter I recently wrote; you might find it interesting.
On Facing Failure
It’s that time of year again. The temperature is rising, tensions are higher, nail-biters are relapsing, and Wikipedia is probably getting more hits than it will for the rest of the year combined. We all work hard. We all want that bright future sitting amid the stars. We all have continuously-growing lists of goals, hopes, and dreams pinned somewhere in our minds.
And we know that all of these can come crashing down without a moment’s notice.
Maybe it’s a test grade. A letter. An email. A phone call. Two words in the street. Sorry, no. Sorry, not this time. Not interested. Not good enough. Not qualified. The sinking feeling in your stomach. The swirling feeling in your head. I’ve heard them called butterflies. That’s a euphemism.
Do you feel this way sometimes, too?
Who made these rules? That a single letter on a sheet of paper can dictate your life? That a man or woman behind a desk with a resume and ten-minute phone interview knows enough about you to decide your future? Now, I could sit here and write about how rejection and failure is a big learning process. After all, we wouldn’t nearly enjoy success as much if we didn’t have the chance to grit our teeth over bitter disappointment. But who wants to hear about that? Knowing that things might improve in the future hardly helps the here-and-now.
I’ll relate two personal anecdotes, if you’d like to hear them. Almost all of my exam papers over the last five or so years have a small column of numbers running down the edge. I’m calculating my estimated mark on the test and how that will affect my mark in the course overall. After the exam is complete, I pull out my pocket calculator to check my math and assess the damage.
Why? Why do I do that? Are grades the be-all, end-all? Will a D – in Nanobiochemical Foundations 205 really affect my future so much that I need to calculate my estimated mark several times before I consider sleeping at nights again?
What do you think? Is it really that important?
In my opinion, it could be. Everything depends, of course, on that list of goals, hopes, and dreams floating around in your head. But I can guarantee that mark means a lot more to me now than it will five years from now, ten years from now, or even next month.
Because I want to feel in control. I want to feel I am doing something for my future. For my destiny. I know that good grades give me more options. I want more options. I want good grades.
But, regardless of the numbers of doors which line the corridors of possibility, I can only follow one path in life.
If that D- closes off five doors, I still have millions, billions, quadrillions (that’s a word, right?) open for me. It may not be what I was looking for or what I was expecting, but it’s there. The world didn’t end. No zombie apocalypses.
Let’s step away from marks for a moment. They’re really a very small part of the grand scheme of things. You might disagree, so allow me to introduce a new word to our discussion: rejection. No longer “failure”, but the very subjective, all-too-real “rejection”. It might be a supervisor or job offer or crush or school or team or…the list rolls on. This time of year, especially, we feel so much depends on so little. One false step, one loose brick on the path, and you’re finished. Walking into a job interview, you might have five or ten minutes to impress someone on the other side of the desk. What happens if you smell funny? Laugh too loudly? Wore your suit jacket inside out?
I’m thinking of those euphemistic butterflies again.
You might think I’m unqualified to make the sweeping statements this letter contains, and I’d wholeheartedly agree with you. I’m too young to know what life has in store for me. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t felt failure. Rejection.
Just after my fifteenth birthday, I had a “brilliant” idea: I was going to write a novel! I’d work hard on it, get it published, and live the rest of my life as the next <insert author here>, famous, rich, and happy. All right, maybe it wasn’t that extreme, but I did decide to write a novel. I spent a year and a half working on it (a long time in adolescent years). After jotting down the last words, I wrote a proposal, made a list of 150+ literary agents, and sent my heart’s work out to the world.
You can guess what happened, right?
I made a folder in my email account to store all of the rejection letters. That is, letters from the agents who were kind enough to respond.
But I didn’t stop there. That summer, I decided to write another novel and resend it to the agents.
The next summer, I wrote another novel.
I forget how many summers there were, but I do remember that, the last summer I tried this, I actually received a request from an agent hoping to see more of the manuscript. I was ecstatic for days; of course, my reply was quickly followed by another rejection letter, but it was a step in the right direction. There was a pattern forming.
Do you see it?
It’s three words long: Never Give Up.
…now I sound like Winston Churchill.
This rather lengthy letter is dedicated to all of the brave people in the Health Sci community who have taught me to handle rejection and failure. There are people who have passed through the programme before me, people who came after me, people who I sit shoulder-to-shoulder with in lecture halls. There are professors and facilitators and staff members whose little actions speak volumes and teach more than any textbook ever could. There are people whose courage and dedication motivate me to strive to do better, become stronger, and try the hardest I can.
The best place to find the courage to face failure and rejection is from each other. I know, I know life can feel like a competition. Like you’re drowning against the current in the swimming race of life. But look around you. Everyone has goals, hopes, and dreams. We’re in this together. You’re not alone.
In two weeks, I am going to write the last exam of my undergraduate career, closing the door on another chapter in life. People ask me what I plan to do afterwards. The answer is terrifying simple: I don’t know. I have goals. I have a very clear dream. But I have no idea how I’m going to get there. The corridor of possibilities is full of doors, but I haven’t tried enough of them to know which ones open, and which are still locked
How many of your doors have you tried?