I’ve had a lot of success this year. I am loving my new job. I’ve got the gig as a contributing writer at Book Riot. I’m doing more and more freelancing. Life is good!
But it would be easy to focus on just the things that are working out rather than belaboring all that lead up to those achievements. So today, I’m going to talk about failure.
I must have applied for two dozen campus jobs over the course of my undergraduate career, and it wasn’t until my professor called me up and offered me a position as her research assistant that I actually got one. She mentioned that I’d need go through the formal process applying through the university when I jumped at the chance.
See, I didn’t realize that the majority of campus jobs require an “in.” I got that job because I’d been excelling in her classes and had a great rapport with her.
Lesson #1: Get your hustle on and seek out people who can help you achieve your goals.
That’s not to say it’s impossible to get a sweet job without any connections. My sister later got a job at that same university – which she didn’t even attend – through sheer dumb luck, her awesome personality, and her women’s study degree, even though the research associate position was in a completely different field. But more often than not, in my experience, you have to make your own opportunities and seek out people who can help you obtain your goals.
Most of the opportunities I’ve had in my professional life have been a result of a connection, like a referral from a co-worker or people becoming familiar with me, my interests, and my abilities through hustle on my part, before I ever got paid for them. You have to find the right people to form your tribe, but you also have to put you and your work out there.
I worked at a job I hated for years. I was amazing at it, but my values were at odds with the mission of the company and I dreaded getting up in the morning and counted the days until my next vacation.
I knew I needed to make a change. When looking for other opportunities, I pursued jobs in both politics and social work, as those were my my interests, education, and experiences were. And I failed. A lot.
Even though I volunteered for years at the domestic violence shelter, I couldn’t get a job there, or any other similar organization where I interviewed. Apparently there were many talented, committed people willing to work a challenging, draining job for little pay and had the right master’s degree.
I sat in an interview once with a lawyer who ran an office doing work with abused women who point blank told me that the other candidate he interviewed was just as qualified and competent as me, and that he was just going to flip a coin to see which one of us he chose. (I lost.)
I missed out on getting what I thought was my dream at a liberal, leftist nonprofit because I didn’t respond to the email with an offer within a few hours. This was when I worked at a company where I couldn’t sign into my personal email from a work computer and before I had a smart phone, so there was no way for me to read the email in time. They simply moved on to another candidate.
After a few years of all these failures, I did the unthinkable: I quit my job with no backup plan other than a passion to pursue freelance writing and the idea that I’d get another master’s degree.
Lesson #2: Sometimes you just have to take a chance on the unknown.
And it worked out amazing well.
Am I advising people to just up and quit their jobs? Not exactly. It worked out swimmingly for me, but I had a partner with steady (even if not lucrative) employment and no other dependents. But I completely recognize that it was a privilege that not everyone has, and I got by on a meager part-time job at the library and a second part-time job when I first made this leap. But the chance of happiness was worth the potential for failure.
People are understandably reticent about sharing their failures. It’s a lot easier to celebrate success and no one wants to appear as if they are looking for sympathy or handouts or are just plain whining when something doesn’t go their way. But I think we should talk about our failures more often.
I applied for a promotion to the collection development librarian twice before I got it. The first time I was underqualified, uncertain, and unprepared, but I let people know I was interested and the interview gave me more of an indication of what I’d need to know in order to get it, and I really killed it the second time around.
These weren’t the only times I failed, either.
Book Riot burst onto the bookish internet scene about the time I got into libraries and serious about online literary culture. When they put out a call for new contributors, I applied, and submitted some of my favorite pieces for consideration: a profile of my favorite author, José Saramago and a “how to read Infinite Jest” post. I had worked with one of their contributors and was a professional acquaintance of another, but I didn’t solicit their help in getting on board as contributor. I just applied through the normal channels.
And I wasn’t accepted.
I was disappointed for a bit, perhaps even a tad jealous at times, but still supported the mission of the site and shared and regularly read the articles. I just continued to look for more freelancing opportunities elsewhere (and failed more often than I succeeded).
Fast forward a few years, and I got an email inviting me to apply again outside of an open call, and quickly became a contributor. I’d made it close to the final round when I’d submitted, and they’d been watching my work elsewhere and thought I’d bring something different to the site.
Now, I was in.
It’s been one of my most fulfilling professional endeavors yet, and I really feel like I’ve met my people. If I’d been bitter or resentful over that first rejection and closed myself off to the possibility of taking on that role in the future, I’d have missed out.
Lesson #3: Be persistent.
The same is true of my current job. A year ago I visited Santa Barbara and fell in love with the town. I applied for an open position as a children’s librarian right away, and months later came to town for a final interview. I didn’t end up getting that job, but the hiring committee expressed enthusiasm for my work and potential and mentioned the possibility of future openings, so instead of feeling bitter and burned by getting so close and then failing, I kept my eye on their job postings, and a job that matched my interests and abilities even more perfectly came up, and the rest is history, because here I am.
Growing up and even into adulthood, I was sometimes hesitant to try things, and if I failed once, forget about trying again—I’d just move on to something else instead of embarrassing myself on another attempt. I wanted things to be easy. Guaranteed. I stayed inside my comfort zone.
And I wasn’t happy.
When I started going for things I really wanted, pushing my limits, and when I failed, just going out to try it again, that’s when things started to fall into place.
Basically, it’s like my pal Jake the Dog of Adventure Time fame says:
[Tweet “Dude, sucking at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.”]
Adventure Time is way more insightful than I could ever be. And I could try to just sum this up with some slogan like “be brave and bold” or another corny thing, but what I really want to say is in my experience, failure is worth the risk, and persistence pays off. Disappointment is fleeting, and often times, things will work out for the best and new opportunities will come. If you’re not failing, then you’re probably not trying, and that is not the path that brought me happiness.
How do you handle failure? What’s your advice on handling defeats?