Preparing for Failure on the Path to Success

life path
(Liz Looker)

Success, however we define it for ourselves, can appear out of reach when we only see the “end product” or major achievements of others’ journeys. Most people (especially fantastically famous ones) fail somewhat regularly. EVERYONE fails. It took me over 25 years to realize that if I’m not occasionally failing, I’m living with so much safety and hesitancy that I’m destined for mediocrity. Some people are content with maintaining the status quo, but I’d rather do something big. So I’m learning to embrace failure, and I’ll share a story that involuntarily launched me into this mindset:

In Fall 2014 I applied to seven competitive sociology PhD programs. Whenever someone asked me what I was up to, from catching up with old friends to meeting completely new people, I shared that I applied to grad school and would be starting next fall. At least I was confident!

Up to that point, I was a high-honors student in a large New York State public high school, graduated with a research-focused liberal arts degree in Western Massachusetts, served in AmeriCorps for a year, worked in nonprofit development and marketing, and was two years into managing curriculum and course materials at the MIT Sloan School of Management. While I was working I completed four graduate-level courses through Wheelock and Harvard; just because I love the classroom and learning new skills. Life wasn’t without challenges, but when it came to academics and intellectual curiosity, I was positive a PhD in sociology was my next step.

I’m sure you can see where this is going: I didn’t get in. Not a single school wanted me that year. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might not get in. When the seventh rejection email arrived, even after the first six, I wasn’t prepared.

It took me a while to manage the overwhelming feeling of failure. Not only because I was rejected, but because education is extremely important to me and it’s a big part of my identity. It was frustrating to quantify how many hours of effort I put into the application process – from taking the GREs to researching faculty to writing essays – which amounted to nothing.

Failure is fascinating. We need to prepare for it, because if we challenge ourselves, we should fail. However, we must not dwell in the possibility of failure, because we will eventually succeed. Maybe it’s not the path we originally planned, but something good will happen by working toward different variations of what we want with persistence.

After my experience of failing without preparation, I now try to pause during times of uncertainty and reflect on the possibility of multiple outcomes. By working toward peacefulness and acceptance of myself, right now as I am, regardless of other people’s decisions or even my own achievements, I am building a strong foundation of resilience.

I didn’t apply for PhD programs again this fall. Instead I decided to continue progressing in my higher education work and slowly earn my masters degree part-time, then apply again when the time feels right. It’s not as exciting as throwing myself into the sociological research and classes I love; but I made a decision to not allow an admissions committee to dictate my self-worth. And that’s a step toward success.