Lessons Failure Taught Me
As the first week of quarantine set, I felt a deep sense of despair set in as my plans for the year began to fall like a house of cards. As weeks turned into months, I felt like a million butchers’ knives had sliced through every inch of my heart and served it up for dogs to eat. The sun seemed to stand still and I could feel the proverbial sledge hammer pounding at my plans for the year and crushing him as if they were purely made of porcelain.
In my formative years, I had been successful at everything that I did. I was the poster-kid for success, the girl every parent wanted as their daughter and the perfect person you would have loved to hate. I had the mantra: “If I think it, I can do it and there is no mountain that is insurmountable”. I managed to start a hair business while studying, raised enough money to backpack across Europe and was still a decorated scholar. However, my egotistical parachute quickly deflated when I applied for PhD studies at Stanford and other top tier universities and got resounding rejections. I was awash with so much rejection that I felt like my dreams and aspirations just said to me, “We were in an entanglement”. When my egotistical parachute finally landed on the ground, my self-worth was dismembered. I graduated that year, with top grades only because I had been conditioned to perform in spite of my feelings. I poured all my anger into my work and plastered on a mask of fearlessness even though inside I had died a thousand deaths and my rejection letters haunted my dreams.
The following year I completed several internships and decided to reapply and casted my net of applications wider than the previous year. I got rejected at all the institutions I applied. So I decided to gain more work experience and use it to bolster my CV and applications, all in preparation to apply that following autumn for more PhD positions. I had so many rejection letters that I designated myself a “failure”. I had no school, no job and had to return back to my home country where many tongues wagged about my failure. I had suggestions coming in from everyone, “just apply at Cape Town, I am sure they will take you”, “there is a program that I saw in Finland, I think they will accept you”, “I saw this job position, apply”, “maybe this is a spiritual attack, your grandmother might have stolen your luck”. I had people reading and reviewing my applications and not once did that change my outcome. Rejection letters still came flying in and then one day, I just stopped trying.
I became stagnant. Jack Ma once wrote how he applied to Harvard so many times and he got rejected but went on to create Alibaba one of the most successful businesses in China. This is not that story. I didn’t get rejected from graduate school and create a successful business empire. In fact I tried and failed, and tried at setting up another business and failed. I failed so many times I even got afraid of waking up, I was afraid of socializing with anyone – afraid all they would see was my boulevard of broken dreams and catch my failure. Fear is crippling and failure heightens our fear of the unknown. Failure is something that is swept underneath the carpet unless it is a rags to riches story. We love to share our wins but let us normalize sharing our losses too. There is so much fear of the unknown in the world right now. Some people are going around wearing masks of success to masquerade the death of their job or their business or whatever it is that their aspirations were.
Failure taught me the art of trying one more time. I always wanted to be an engineering research professor and obtaining a PhD was the first step to achieving my goal. When I received the hurricane of rejection letters I felt robbed of my dreams. Failure taught me the art of adaptation. I know how much it sucks when you are in between a rock and a hard place, it is easy to give up as it seems the odds are just stacked against you. You just have to adapt to the environment and keep trying to shoot your target from different angles. If you can’t climb the rock to escape then you have to chip away at the rock just because sometimes there are no easy way outs in life and stagnation is death.
Failure stinks like a skunk. Nothing will repel your friends and the majority of your support network like continuous failure. People’s affections are as fickle as the wind. Sooner or later “your people” will socially distance themselves from you. I lost friends, family members distanced themselves from me as if I were possessed by an evil spirit. I learnt to quarantine myself from people’s negative comments and never look at life through the microlens of social media. I had to stop comparing myself to my agemates and previous schoolmates. I sanitized my thoughts from envy and focused my energy on scaling my rock.
When you label yourself a failure, you begin to attract failures. As my social network distanced themselves from me, I began to look for people who made me feel good about myself. You know people who justified not trying, who would say, “why try it won’t change anything”. Such parasitic relationships will leech out the little strength you have left. At times it is better to be alone than in the company of fools because foolish decisions can have detrimental consequences that set you back even further. I had to learn to seek out a tribe that understood what I was trying to achieve.
People love giving advice, everyone is a self-decorated Professor of wisdom. I had to learn to tune out hypothetical solutions and seek wise counsel. My social network turned into WebMD doctors trying to diagnose my problems and prescribe solutions even though they were not qualified to handle the situation. You might hear: “So and so did this, give it a try”. I had to learn to discern good advice from someone’s self-preservation trip. I learnt that some advice was not meant for me, it was just so that the adviser would feel better about themselves that they tried all they could to help me out.
I had to learn to love and forgive myself. I recently discovered that I don’t love myself enough. I had grown up believing that I was more acceptable with highly distinguished accolades than I was just being me. So I set my bars so high, I almost could not reach them and I pressurized myself to become a high achiever. My achievements were not for me, they were so that I could be recognized and feel validated that I was worthy of love. It is only now that I realized that there is absolutely nothing wrong with me. I had to walk through the valley of the shadow of death of my dreams to know who I was.
Finally, failure is all about perception. I am grateful that I was rejected at all those graduate programs and jobs that I wanted. It was only through rejection that I was led down the road of self-discovery. I had grown up focused on winning accolades than developing my social and emotional skills that I actually lacked communication skills. Hundreds of rejection letters and countless failed businesses later, I feel I am one of the most successful people. Each failure brought a lesson to be learnt and brought me closer to being the best version of me. I have developed a sense of gratitude – gratitude makes it easier to breathe and removes the dust off your spectacles of perception. I still tremble when I open my emails, I still cry and feel dejected when I read “Thank you for applying however, we regret to inform…” but I am a failure-survivor and that is worth celebrating.