On failure

Failure and rejection happen to everyone. I believe that we need to be more open about this, especially considering the rise of pressure-related anxiety in children (see mental health advocate Natasha Devon’s recent speech to learn more).

If you’re a self-development or social innovation enthusiast like me, you might have heard of ‘failing forward’. As this Forbes article explains, ‘[f]ailure isn’t fatal; in fact, it is actually REQUIRED for innovation success—as long as you don’t freak out, make catastrophic mistakes or (ironically) fail to learn from it.’ This stands true in both our personal and professional lives.

Researcher, author and speaker Brené Brown (watch her Ted Talk on vulnerability here) captures the importance of resilience in Rising Strong: ‘I want to be in the arena. I want to be brave with my life. And when we make a choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked. We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time.’

One of my favourite passages in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic makes a good point too: ‘Own your disappointment, acknowledge it for what it was, and move on. Chop up that failure and use it as bait to try to catch another project. Someday it might all make sense to you – why you needed to go through this botched-up mess in order to land in a better place. Or maybe it will never make sense. So be it. Move on, anyhow.’

As well as quotes like those above, I have a few other reminders that give me perspective after a disappointment. Here they are:

You are not defined by your external achievements. That job, that flat in an exciting (read: expensive) city, that place at a top university, that first class degree, that boyfriend / girlfriend / partner. Yes, they may shape your self-image and other people’s perceptions of you, but they are not everything about you.

You won’t get everything you put yourself forward for. No one does. If you have up until now (hello, overachieving types), then your time for rejection will come and you will be ok.

No opportunity will be perfect. This piece of wisdom was given to me by my Talent Champion (internal mentor) at Student Hubs. It’s important to remember that every decision or path you take will come with its own hurdles. You’ll need to get good at jumping them (or running into them / knocking them over, like I used to do in P.E.).

Crucial insights will often come from failure. To give one example, I recently applied for a job (the end of the Worthwhile graduate scheme has come around quickly!) and didn’t get it. Although myself and the organisation aligned in lots of ways, neither of us could offer the flexibility the other needed and I didn’t have enough experience in their specific field. Still, in the process, I met some really interesting people, learned more about their work, gained interview experience and figured out what I need from a role.

Space and time will help you to make better decisions. If you are finishing university, a graduate scheme or feeling like it’s time to move on from something in your life, make sure to reflect on what you want. Don’t rebound from a job rejection by submitting a dozen applications to positions you don’t want just to feel better and have something lined up as soon as possible. (This is solid advice for romantic and other situations too.)

I think it’s also important to acknowledge that the perfectionism of social media culture can make it seem as though good things are constantly happening to everyone else (see Maxie McCoy’s honest perspective on this here). This is a dangerous assumption, not only because it places pressure on us to conform to that standard online, but because it can prevent us from engaging in open, face-to-face conversations about disappointment – conversations that can give us the necessary space to process.

To counter this, I encourage you (and myself, on days when I need a pep talk) to lean into discomfort and be more open. Don’t pretend that you aren’t experiencing challenges or facing unmet expectations, and remember that positive change – intentional or coincidental – often happens after disappointment. You’ve got this.

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