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FastWeb Column: Coming to Terms With Failure

This story was published in 2007 for FastWeb, an online education resource and scholarship search engine.

Jim Davis, creator of the Garfield comic strip, once wrote, “I could wallpaper a room with my rejection slips.” From an interior-design standpoint, not such a great idea. In terms of maintaining an optimistic viewpoint, also not the best plan. Yet, I think Jim’s on to something.

There are always going to be times when things are … stacked against the punter. (The punter being you.) You can’t always get the gig, the job, the girl (or boy). What’s to be done? Embrace disappointment as a part of life, just the way successes are. Right now, students are applying to and hearing from colleges and graduate schools; it’s the time when seniors interview for jobs. My own collegiate stress was weighing me down, so my resolution this year was to be ok with disappointment. This column describes my quest to figure out how.

I’m not exactly swimming in a sea of condolences when something goes awry. This has become particularly pronounced in my time at the University of Virginia. The atmosphere here is one of stifling successes. When people do poorly, their failure is locked in the closet and the key swallowed – gulp – before the world hears about it. I wonder, in a world of winners, are those who succeed the real losers? Why do we focus on self-help more than self-health? What should you do when something doesn’t go your way?

I studied greeting cards. If you ever need a query answered (What’s the meaning of life? Will Troy Polamalu ever cut his hair? Is it true that humans share more genetic code with sea urchins than dogs?), locate your nearest Hallmark store. Greeting cards synthesize everything the average American wants to say into three-line quips, some with sound. There wasn’t much solace in condolence, however. One rose-covered fold-out drooled, “Sorry for your loss.” Generic, geriatric communiqués wouldn’t help me get over a disappointment.

Still not having an all-purpose answer, I did something rash. I asked myself. “Self,” I said, “What do you do when you’re disappointed about something?” My first thought was of a cheesy mantra written on my high-school math teacher’s wall. It asked which angle was the most successful, and the answer was the “try-angle.” After discarding that as utterly useless, I thought of my mother’s catch phrase: Rise above it. This too, failed me. There’s something about the brusqueness, the aggression of that mandate that doesn’t make me feel better. (It’s more salvo than salve.) So I went deeper into my memory, trying to locate the spark that keeps me going when I’ve been disappointed.

There isn’t a spark. There’s a brushing off of the hands, a readjusting of the glasses and then I just keep going. That’s all. And I think that’s all anybody does. You can’t let a disappointment end your goals. (Any good sports movie will tell you that.) Furthermore, since American culture supports the view that your worth is dictated by your success – a problem, since everyone can’t succeed all of the time – it’s hard to remember that failure is healthy. You don’t have to bounce back immediately, either. Kate Hudson lost her baby weight an unprecedented three minutes after giving birth and look what happened to her! Bad example. The point is, it’s ok to not succeed. It’s going to happen whether you like it or not, so keep your chin up and don’t let failure make you quit. Keep going because it’s the only thing to do. That, and change the wallpaper.

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