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What a rejection letter taught me about failure

I was in eighth grade when I received my first rejection letter. I had applied to a public magnet school in my area, and I really (really, really) wanted to attend. On the long-awaited Decision Day, while receiving texts from my friends sharing news of their acceptances, I went to the mailbox to retrieve my own letter, stuffed inside a misleadingly thick envelope. When I opened it, cautiously optimistic, and actually read the words, the notorious “thanks, but no thanks,” I started to cry. 

In retrospect, it really wasn’t a big deal, though at the time it seemed like a huge deal. It felt like a personal failure–a realization that I simply wasn’t good enough. The obvious way to proceed here would be to write, “But it wasn’t a failure! I was good enough!” Yada yada yada. Honestly, though, it was a failure, and I wasn’t good enough. The question is: So what? 

I think we—as a society, as a generation, take your pick—have a tendency to treat failure like the honest-to-goodness F-word, the name which shan’t be uttered. But why? We all fail. I have failed at many things! A Latin quiz on which I received an astonishingly low 1/10. Jobs and internships that I didn’t get. Schools (plural!) that I didn’t get into. I have failed before, and I will fail again. 

Essentially, even if that rejection letter had instead been an acceptance letter, I have since realized that it would have merely delayed the inevitable: We are all destined to fail at some point. As such, that experience proved to be extremely valuable, in that it taught me–in a low-stakes way and early on–what it meant to not get something that I had worked hard for and really wanted. It taught me that I will not always be the best, or the smartest, or the most qualified. And, perhaps more importantly, it taught me to move past disappointment and use it to my advantage, skills which have since proven to be immensely beneficial. 

Failure is not some sort of death sentence. Did you ever hear the Pen Story in elementary school? You know it–the whole chain of worst-case scenarios that begins with forgetting your pen and ends with death. Obviously. (Side note: Fourth graders must be the most morbid bunch in the world.) So, real life is not like the Pen Story. Yes, failure usually has consequences, sometimes serious ones even; but unless it in some way results in harm to yourself or another person, there’s no long-term damage done. 

And yet, we treat failure like, well, a failure. Why? As I’ve already established, it’s inevitable, something that everyone will experience if they somehow haven’t yet. But we act as if it were shameful, a taboo subject. When someone admits failure, the first instinct is to refute, to reframe that failure as something ostensibly less damning. Essentially, in the era of the infamous participation trophy, we are losing the crucial abilities to both accept criticism and learn from it.

We are doing ourselves a disservice if we pretend that failure doesn’t exist. Yes, accepting failure can be difficult, and yes, it can be uncomfortable. But it would be impossible to ignore everything that causes us discomfort. And when presented with discomfort, we really have two options: 1) to dwell on it, or 2) to overcome it. While dwelling in healthy doses is normal and, to an extent, warranted, indulgence will quickly become unproductive. So that eventually only leaves the second option. 

Learning to deal with failure, to sit with the accompanying discomfort and then work through it, is a really important skill–it’s what allows us to build resilience! But we are neglecting it. I think this realization calls for a reassessment of how we handle our own failures, as well as how we react to others’ failures. I’m not suggesting that we regard each failure as a sign of personal shortcoming, some sort of mortal flaw, but as an opportunity to do better. Our response to failure, then, should not be denial, those half-hearted words, “No, you didn’t fail.” It should be a question: “What are you going to do about it?”

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