December 20, 2016

10 Things I Have (Re)Learned about Failure & Rejection.


“Never let a stumble in the road be the end of the journey.” ~ Unknown


Yesterday I failed.

I learned that I didn’t make the cut for a programme I had my hopes up for. It had looked like the perfect stepping stone for my career ambitions.

I had known it was a competitive selection process and I had always been aware of the possibility of rejection—but still, the news hit me like a punch in the stomach.

Much as I tried to rationalize my way out of it, the feeling of inadequacy kept gnawing away at me.

My inner optimist had already been making plans for next year around my participation in this programme. But now I had an unexpected gaping void opened in that space.

And it was in that open space of uncertainty that I started to see the flicker of hope and excitement for all the possibilities that could now fill it.

“When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.” ~ Alexander Graham Bell

Yeah, I know, eyes rolling, right?

This piece of consolatory advice has become so cliché that it has all but lost its meaning.

But the thing is, we’ve all been in the situation when as soon as something becomes off limits, it also becomes fascinatingly appealing. The pain of a closed opportunity can be so overwhelming, that no amount of “what is meant for you will come your way” thinking will soothe it.

My brain analysed the situation objectively, and saw it for what it was: we get opportunities in life, and we may choose to go for them—if we win, we celebrate and get on with it, if we lose, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves and move on to the next one.

If we only ever went for the “sure thing,” we probably would miss out on a lot of exciting possibilities that stretch us out of our comfort zone.

But my heart was having a temper tantrum—and I felt I needed to attend to that first, before getting back on the “bike.”

So here’s what I learned in the middle of that red hot vortex of disappointment:

>> Feel the pain. Here’s the thing: I don’t know anyone who likes losing.

When it happens, we hurry to sweep it under the carpet as soon as possible. I remember flunking a science contest as a kid. I was well prepared, I had worked really hard, and yet, through a combination of bad luck and the stress of the day, I didn’t do nearly as well as I had expected. I was devastated by the result, and remember my mum telling me: “Oh, don’t you cry now!” The comment didn’t come from some cruel lack of empathy, but rather the opposite: from the discomfort of sitting with pain. Nobody says “Oh, don’t jump up with joy!” Being sad when we experience failure is just as natural as being joyful when we experience success.

>> Be kind to myself. My inner critic doesn’t need a lot of prompting to come out and pour gas on the fire.

It’s not exactly an articulated voice in my head, bombarding me with insults—rather, it’s a subtle feeling of general uneasiness and discomfort, which probably stems from a primal fear that “something is wrong with me.” And I don’t mean here objective self-assessment, but that overly critical inner voice that extrapolates beyond the specific experience and finds fundamental flaws with me as a person. Negative self-talk is almost encouraged in our performance driven society as a means of avoiding complacency and maintaining motivation; however, it turns out it can be self-defeating.

“It interferes with the ability to improve when improvement is needed. It also keeps us from accepting aspects of ourselves that can’t be changed or that are fine the way they are.” ~ Ruth Baer 

Instead, I try to keep reminding myself to practice patience and loving kindness to myself through maitri.

>> Communicate. It’s excruciatingly difficult to admit defeat. We have this super-hero complex, and feel like we should be infallible even in front of our nearest and dearest. This quote comes to mind.

“To love a person is to see all of their magic, and to remind them of it when they have forgotten.” ~ Unknown

This is precisely the kind of time when we need that reminder. So I reached out to that friend who’s known me through ups and downs, and still thinks I’m valuable and lovable even when I’m whining; she could offer me honest sympathy and support and I know she won’t secretly gloat at my troubles.

>> Express. For me the best way to deal with the tornado of thoughts and feelings swirling in my mind and heart is to write them down; journaling helps me put some order in the chaos of my thoughts and gain perspective.

>> Don’t fall into the “everything is wrong” trap. I’m susceptible to the “snowball effect.” It’s easy to jump from “this didn’t work out” to finding fault with other unrelated areas of my life. However, I reminded myself of that walk I took yesterday morning along a river, in beautiful winter sunshine. I was loving life! This hasn’t changed just because of a phone call.

>> Take feedback at face value. The ego will attempt to twist or reject feedback in an attempt to protect itself—it’s a defensive mechanism called self-serving bias.

Or we might try to speculate on additional, unstated reasons that might have contributed to us not getting selected. That’s not a great strategy. As uncomfortable as it was to be confronted with “areas of improvement,” I confess that the feedback I received highlighted my blind-spots about how I present myself, which I can learn from and incorporate in the future.

>> Re-visit old failures. While this might sound like adding gas to the fire, I found it to be an encouraging exercise.

I realized that after every episode in my life that I considered a failure, there inevitably followed a success. It might have been a few months later, or a few years; it might have been in the same field, or something completely different. I might have even stumbled a couple of times before finding my footing. But inevitably, I did, every time. And you know what’s even cooler? When looking back on my life I remember most vividly the fun I had and the projects that did work out, while the fact that I had actually tried something else before succeeding comes as an afterthought. Re-visiting old failures gives reassurance that “this too shall pass,” and I’ll only too happily relegate this experience to the recycle bin of memory.

>> Remember the small everyday wins. My win for the past couple of weeks has been connecting people: I’ve had the chance to put several of my fabulous, entrepreneurial friends in contact with each other, and I am vicariously excited about the projects they might create together. I think of it as building good karma—and that already makes me feel more chipper.

>> Perspective. As I am writing this, we are watching with bated breath and a feeling of helplessness and disbelief the ongoing tragedy in Aleppo.

Any personal concerns pale in comparison. Hope means that we will have 50,000 more displaced people, as opposed to the unthinkable horror of 50,000 more victims. This gives a hell of a perspective, and also reminds me why I’m doing what I’m doing: I’m not just looking for another notch on my resume, but for a way to contribute to making the world a kinder, fairer and more compassionate place. And that deserves perseverance.

>> Give it time. Knowing myself, I’ll probably feel the sting of disappointment for a few days to come—and that’s okay. It’s part of “growing pains”.

“Yes, I know that I’ll be fine and that eventually, things will work themselves out. I know that what’s meant for me will always be for me… I know. But I just need a minute or two to pull myself together; because sometimes the shit life throws at me, gets a little bit heavy. That’s all.” ~ Austin Bui

Life offers us a bounty of opportunities. All we can do is show up as best we can. Not all of them will work out, and when they don’t, we will naturally feel upset—but mustn’t be discouraged.

Inevitably, there will be another door opening somewhere—we might just have to take a good look around to see it.


Author: Hermina Popa

Image: @elephantjournal on Instagram

Apprentice Editor: Jeramie Vaine; Editor: Caitlin Oriel

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