Almost exactly three years ago, I traveled to my second and last national speech and debate tournament with my coaches and teammates. I was scheduled to compete in Original Oratory, with ten minute, memorized piece I had written that detailed my prolific 18-year-old understanding and analysis of fear of failure. I don’t remember much about that OO, as my default reaction that year and the year before was to never recite the speech again as soon as I finished my last round of competition. I do remember that I talked about my anxiety, which I was finally starting to acknowledge (even though I wasn’t ready to admit that it had reached debilitating levels). I talked about taking risks, and continuing to reach higher and higher even in the face of uncertainty. I talked about Steve Jobs and Frida Kahlo and about how giving up was for the short-sighted, even in the face of constant rejection.
I don’t think I ever really believed the words I was saying.
For the three years of high school that I competed in speech and debate, and through my professional development in college — right up until today — I’ve kept my true philosophy on failure a secret. If I had to sum it up, it would be: “Don’t.” And if I had to make concessions it would be: “Don’t. But if you do, you better have three other opportunities lined up that you can show everyone instead.” Don’t be afraid of failure, because failure is not an option.
College has complicated that a little. In high school, taking honors and AP classes was enough to distinguish myself. I didn’t have to worry about what I was doing, as much. I was smart, I did speech. That was sufficient. In college, I can say that I really have adopted and truly believe that “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” My college classes have taught me that education isn’t purely about comparing GPAs. In a seminar where everyone comes from slightly different perspectives or even majors, everyone will have something valuable and insightful to contribute. Someone will always know something you don’t, and that’s exhilarating. I can honestly say I enjoy and value that part of my education. Outside of the classroom, however, is where I falter. Application-based OU extracurriculars have reached nearly cutthroat levels of competitiveness. I don’t fault them for that; if you want the best of the best of 20,000 undergraduates, your standards have to be pretty damn high. For the first two and a half years of my college career, I worked my way into a couple of those opportunities, and I felt good about it. This semester, however, as I submit and review applications for various campus jobs and positions, that’s changed. I have a list that I optimistically made in my planner of things that I applied for, and one by one, they’ve been crossed off.
The thing that cuts me the deepest, more than a feeling of failure, is a feeling of rejection. Those are obviously such different words that evoke different emotions, but it wasn’t even until sitting down and writing this that I pinpointed what I’m really afraid of. I can handle failure. I can handle starting over or reworking or reimagining. I have a harder time with rejection. Rejection leaves a distinct taste in your mouth. It coats your tongue with the bitter taste of self-loathing and a metallic tang of longing. I’m not good enough, but someone else is. To believe that you’re fundamentally unworthy or unimpressive is hard, and it’s destructive. I’m trying not to wallow. I’m trying to be easy on myself. I’m trying to acknowledge that I might have set my sights a little too high. And, more than anything, I’m trying to stay humble (even though this stupid, somber blog post is riddled with “I” statements and self-pity). Yeah, I keep getting rejected, and it sucks. But I’m only 21 years old! (I almost wrote 20. The short-term memory goes quick.) I proved to myself that I’m strong enough to live – not just exist – in a completely new place where minimal English is spoken! I took initiative to create new opportunities for myself once I get home! I try to be a present and engaged friend to people who definitely do not give a flying [redacted] how long or impressive my resume is.
I don’t have a particularly interesting takeaway from that. I’m not going to pretend that I’m happy about the opportunities I’ve lost, or that I’ve managed to find some great fulfillment somewhere else. But I have been humbled, and that’s incredibly valuable in the accomplishment-based box I’ve put myself in. Rejection won’t ruin me unless I let it. Now, I just have to figure out how to make that (not) happen.