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Learning from Professional Failure

by Genevieve O’Connor ’22, Career Ambassador Apr 19, 2021

“There’s no slipping up if you slip away.”

In the popular Broadway musical, Dear Evan Hansen, the protagonist sings a song that exemplifies his anxiety about communicating with other people and facing the rest of the world. The fear of failure and mistakes threatens to swallow him, and he chooses to withdraw and “slip away” rather than risk making a mistake.

Perhaps the rest of us don’t erupt into a Tony Award-winning musical number, but we can all empathize with this anxious character. As we embark on our personal and professional lives, the world of applications, interviews, submissions, pitches, outreach, and communication is riddled with the risk of rejection, and it can seem much easier (and much safer) to not even try. 

However scary or uncomfortable you may feel about rejection, you need to put yourself out there in order to get somewhere. With this in mind, here are three truths about rejection in the professional sphere which will encourage you to rise above any fear of failure and see the beauty of our risk-filled world.

1. It’s Inevitable

Rejection is simply a part of life—it is not indicative of your value as a person or as an applicant. J.K. Rowling faced rejection thirty-eight times before Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone got published, and she turned out okay.   

If we wait for a situation that is absolutely certain, risk-free, or a “shoe-in,” then we are only robbing ourselves of the chance to grow. As Dr. Howsare announced to his Faith and Reason class: “Certitude is cheap!” The most important and beautiful things in life involve risk and uncertainty, such as romance or designing a new invention. I believe that if we learn to regard rejection not as the scary halt to our hopes and dreams but rather as another natural step towards our future, then we will be better equipped to face life head-on and make bold steps in our professional growth.

Facing the reality of rejection is not pessimism; for by relieving ourselves of the impossible standard of perfection, we can allow ourselves real hope.

2. There are New Doors

The common expression, “Where one door closes, another door opens,” is absolutely true in the professional world. Rather than regarding rejection as the end of the road, we should all learn to see it as a fork in the road. When I was first applying to colleges in 2018, I had my heart set on attending Notre Dame. To my dismay, however, I eventually received an unforgiving email notification that I had not been accepted. At the time, I was crushed.

But being denied my first-choice school forced me to seriously consider my other options and explore the many other colleges available to me. Thankfully, I found myself at DeSales. Now, I am convinced that the community at DeSales has allowed me to grow and become a leader in a way that Notre Dame never would have. I’m so glad that Notre Dame’s locked doors led me to DeSales’s wide-open ones.

3. The Kelley Clarkson Principle

We must not forget these words of wisdom: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” As cheesy as this saying is, there is profound truth in the fact that falling down is what teaches us to get back up. If we are denied a job (or our first-choice school) we can learn about ourselves and where we need to grow. For instance, a disastrous interview experience is what teaches us how to improve our next interview! I remember one of my earliest college interviewers asked me: “What is truth?” (A rather deep question for a high school junior to tackle) and I was totally flummoxed. Needless to say, I didn’t earn any scholarships to that university. But now, I know to research schools and companies before I interview for them, learn their mission and values, and prepare honest and professional answers for deep questions as well as career-related ones.

Once we internalize these three truths, we can finally accept Wayne Gretzky’s famous line, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Rejection is pretty much impossible to avoid forever, but it can lead us down new and better paths and help us to improve ourselves.

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