When Failure Works Itself Out

"Failure can make you who you are."

I am a control freak. I rarely try anything that I don't feel confident I will excel at. I have a 5-year, 10-year, and 800-year plan. Any risks I take have been precisely calculated and there is always a fallback plan. 

I think I learned these lessons the hard way back in my senior year of high school. When it came time to apply for college, I was overly and absurdly confident. I had a great GPA. I did really well on my standardized tests. I had participated and led some impressive extracurricular activities. I was graduating high school a year early and already had nine hours in college credits for courses I had taken at a local college during the summer after my junior year of high school. I had consistently been working part-time, even when in school, often in supervisory roles. I felt confident that my college essay was compelling. 


On paper, I believed I was an all-star. So, when I mailed those four college applications to four Ivy League schools, I sort of expected at least two or three enthusiastic acceptance letters to come back to me. My parents and high school counselor strongly encouraged me to apply to a safety school, citing the acceptance rates at the schools I had applied to. But, being the stubborn jackass that I am, I refused. 

I kept telling them that applying to a safety school would be settling, not believing in myself. I was 16 and naive and still believed that if you just work hard enough, that you'll get exactly what you want and deserve. 

Luckily, my parents were smart enough to let me fall flat on my face and learn some valuable lessons.

Much to my surprise, when spring rolled around I received four rejection letters. While my friends were excitedly sharing where they were headed in the fall and buying stuff for their dorm rooms, I was making up bullshit answers about taking a semester off, traveling, etc. — saying anything not to look like a complete idiot. 

Occasionally, I just owned my failure, explaining that I had stubbornly applied to only Ivy League schools and been rejected by all of them. Those words were hard for somebody who had (and still has) an unhealthy attachment to achievement to say. At the time the whole experience was super painful, but like many painful experiences, I can now look back and appreciate the way things fell apart and led me here. 

Mongkol Foto / Shutterstock

I did travel that fall to England and Ireland, something I may never have been able to do had my plans worked out. I continued working and got some additional management experience. I learned how to pick myself back up and make a new plan. I learned that failure and the feelings associated with it were temporary. I knew that I wanted to be in Boston, so I found a university that did rolling admissions. I was accepted and started making a plan for moving that January. 

I was only in Boston for a year, but that was such a formative time in my life — in both good and bad ways. When I came home for that first summer, I started dating the man that ended up becoming my husband. I wholly believe that had I not had this precise string of experiences, that I might not have ended up with him, which means I never would have ended up adopting my son. There are so many things that never would have been if even one of those schools had accepted me or even if a safety school had accepted me. 

I've failed so many times since that experience, in small ways, and in big ways, but now I try to remind myself that what feels like a failure today may lead me exactly where I need to be in the long run. I know it's easy to say that in hindsight. In the midst of the shame and disappointment that comes with rejection and failure, those words feel like empty fluff, but they are often true. 

I've seen it play out so many times in the lives of people around me — jobs that didn't work out that led to opportunities they were made for, projects that flopped but gave the person inspiration for the thing that sets them on fire. 

Wherever you are today, whatever failure you are walking in or clinging to, know that these feelings are temporary. Humans are crazy resilient. We pick ourselves back up and keep pushing forward all the time. And the beautiful thing is that we've all failed at some point or another. Nobody is immune to failure. 

Surround yourself with people who know what it's like to fall flat on their faces and can speak truth to power about resilience and recovery. Keep putting one foot in front of the other on the days when you feel like you can't face the world. Give yourself some grace. Doing hard things and taking risks means that sometimes you will crash and burn. It's just part of the gig. But sometimes, those failures lead us exactly where we need to be. 

This story originally appeared on Mandy Cowley's blog. Cowley is a soulful creative deeply committed to leaving the world at least a little better than she found it. She has been married for ten years and is a mom to a six-year-old bundle of energy named Joseph. Mandy enjoys writing about raising a differently abled child, adoption, and making the most out of our very busy lives. When she isn't writing or painting, she can usually be found hunting her next cup of coffee or baking. You can find more of her work at www.mandycowley.com and follow her on Facebook


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