They're painful. They're humiliating. And sometimes they're exactly what you need.
Several years ago my husband and I were both self employed and I was sick to death of the irregular income, the costly health insurance we had to buy, and our grueling schedules. I wanted a "real" job—one that would protect me from slow-paying clients, work-killing recessions, and high-deductible health plans that meant we paid for all our doctor visits anyway.
So I set off to gain entrance into an accelerated Masters of Nursing program. In just a year and half I could get my degree and then make a nice cozy place for myself in the ever-growing healthcare space. I dreamed of working three 12-hour shifts in a hospital, steady direct deposits into my bank account every two weeks, and a calendar largely free to spend time with my husband and four children.
It was a beautiful idea.
But first, I had a slew of prerequisite courses to take. As an undergraduate I had preferred creative writing and American literature over chemistry, physiology, and statistics.
I bucked up and broke out the books. I studied flash cards while grocery shopping, driving, and brushing my teeth. I took timed online examinations behind closed doors while my kids tried to keep quiet so I could think. I commuted through snowstorms to attend lectures given by professors 10 years younger than me. I bristled when 19-year-olds sat in front of me with their Macbooks flitting on and off of Facebook while I tried to concentrate. I earned straight As.
Finally it was time to apply for the master’s program. Paramount to the application was the written essay. I’ve got this one, I thought.
And I did. Out of nearly 400 applicants I was one of about 90 to get an interview. About half that would actually gain entrance to the program.
The woman who interviewed me was amiable and disarming. I told her I had recently read “Still Alice,” a touching book about a woman’s experience living with Alzheimer’s. I talked about my business successes and my strong work ethic. I shared with her some of my motivation for wanting to be a nurse, such as the heart I have for the elderly.
Yet as I walked out of her office I looked over my shoulder and saw a hint of disappointment fall over her face as she scribbled notes about what I thought had been a lovely 20-minute chat.
For weeks and weeks I waited.
Then one morning I was talking with some classmates before my pathology class started. In the dimly lit University of Minnesota auditorium several of them grilled me about what I had done to score an interview when they had not. Didn’t I realize the caliber of people on that exclusive list? The way my classmates told it, they were all geneticists, rocket scientists, and demigods. As my peers eyed me up and down I got the distinct impression I wasn’t fitting that bill.
“I think it was probably my essay,” I told them. “I’m pretty good with words.”
Later that day I got the news.
“Thank you for applying to the University of Minnesota School of Nursing,” the e-mail read. “After careful consideration by the School of Nursing Graduate Admissions and Progressions Committee, we regret that we are unable to offer you admission to the Master of Nursing program.”
I shared the news via text message with my husband and best friend. Then I turned off my phone so they couldn’t console me. I went home, crawled into bed, and stayed there for some time. When I finally came out I dropped my two remaining classes, shook my fists at the powers that be, and spent several months trying to figure out what went wrong.
If you’re feeling the pathos in my pathetic story, hang on.
Now that I’m in a different season of life (and self-employed again, by the way) I can look back and know my hard work wasn't all for naught. I needed my epic failure. Here's what I took away from it:
An epic failure usually isn’t a complete disaster—it’s just a matter of finding the nuggets of success that might be rolling around after the train wreck. In my case I learned I’m good at a lot more than I ever gave myself credit for—like science. Who knew that I would excel at chemistry, really dig microbiology, or ace statistics with no lost points? Today I am supremely proud of my academic accomplishments.
The motivations that underlie your decisions are important. Looking back, job stability and financial security alone aren't stellar reasons to undertake such a huge endeavor. If my motivation was more deeply held—if, for example, I was moved to the core by serious healthcare issues and bent on making changes in the industry—I probably wouldn’t have given up so thoroughly when my plans were thwarted.
Optimism can be a serious character flaw. I never entertained the thought that I wouldn’t succeed. I honestly thought if I worked harder than anyone else they’d have to let me in—that’s just fair, right? Well, “fair” is the one thing life most assuredly isn’t. Epic failures remind you that you need to let realism—even a dash of pessimism—into your thinking.
You’ll eventually end up where you’re supposed to be. Here’s that blasted optimism kicking in again, but it’s true. I'm a perfect example. You wouldn’t be reading this now if I had not failed so miserably. The cocky confidence I felt when I wrote that monumental essay so long ago should have been a good indicator I was on the wrong career track. Today I’m privileged to research, talk to, and write about brilliant people doing amazing things.
If you’re like me and have lived to tell about a big blunder, I’d love to hear what you’ve learned and how you’re thriving now.
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