Coping with Failure in the Long-Term

Two years ago this month, I got my rejection email from Duke University, a school that I have wanted to attend since I was in eighth grade. Every AP and ACT prep class, every late-night spent studying and every extracurricular was meant to lead me there. I took expensive summer classes that I thought would enhance my chances, asked my friends who had already gotten in for advice and met with college counselors until the idea of not getting in seemed like the end of the world. My friends are still careful not to mention Duke University around me or, if they do, do so very gently. Making big decisions about your life, like where you’re going to attend college, means giving up all of the other versions of what your life could be. Sometimes, like when facing rejection, the choice isn’t even yours. 

When I come to a crossroads in my life, I always think about the Sylvia Plath quote from “The Bell Jar” about how the main character is watching her life branch out like a fig tree. Each fig represents a different future. In one of them, she’s married with a husband and children, in another one she’s a poet, in another one she’s a professor, then an editor, then a world traveler. She spends so long staring up at the figs that she ends up starving right there. She wants every possible future, but choosing one means giving up all the rest. 

Now that I’m in college, I’m constantly being asked to make decisions that feel like they’re going to change the trajectory of my life. Even decisions that might seem small, like what I’m going to minor in or if I’m going to take summer classes, have an impact on the path that I take for the rest of my college career. So being rejected from my dream school definitely changed the outcome of my life. Sometimes, I still wonder about what I would be like if I had attended school in North Carolina. It’s impossible to be sure if this is where I’m meant to be or if I would be any happier if I was at Duke, but sometimes late at night I still find myself looking at Instagram photos of my friends who did end up at their dream school. I mourned the loss of Duke like most people mourn a breakup. I boxed up all the mementos, tortured myself with thoughts of what could have been and shut myself up in my room for weeks. One rejection letter changed my life and sent me spiraling into shame and self-doubt. I’m still learning how to cope with failure that has such a long-term impact, but one thing that helped me at the moment was reading the words of all the great writers I admire. So many of them went through huge losses before they were able to reach the peak of their careers. It inspired me to start keeping a more regular journal, so that every time I felt upset or scared I would be able to look back and see how my past self dealt with hardships. I started writing notes to my future self, too. My walls are covered in encouraging sticky notes and watercolors that I painted when I was in a good place. All of these things serve to remind me of who I am every time my self-perception gets muddled. 

I’ve re-read “The Bell Jar” many times and eventually I’ve come to realize that one fig drying up doesn’t mean that the entire tree dies. I’ve come to love UMKC and I’m grateful for the opportunities it’s given me. I’m secure in this version of myself and I don’t worry too much about what I can’t change. So while I can’t know that being rejected from Duke was good for me in the long term, I do know that it made me stronger and it taught me a valuable lesson. Up to that point, I had almost always gotten what I felt I deserved, at least academically. I thought that if you were passionate about something and you worked hard, you would be rewarded. I want that to be true, but unfortunately, it isn’t. 

It took me two years to get to a place where I no longer feel bitter about the missed opportunities that came from getting rejected from Duke. I was given lots of good advice during the months after when seeing any mention of the Blue Devils would make me cry my eyes out. I ignored most of it, but my high school mentor did tell me one thing that I’ve always held onto. He said, “It doesn’t matter where you go, it matters what you do.” I have repeated that phrase to myself hundreds of times over the past two years and it’s finally sunk in. I’m going to face so many rejections in my life. Duke was the first big one, but there will be jobs that I’m not hired for, promotions that I don’t get and publishing opportunities that fall through. Whatever organization I’m working for in whatever location I end up at, how I handle myself will always matter more than where I am. One version of my dream life has passed me by, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not another version out there waiting for me.