Keep Failing Forward

When it comes to failing, where do you tend to assign blame? Knowing academics, I’m guessing that you tend to blame yourself (because often that’s true).

Let’s take a concrete example. Let’s say you are competing for a job that you really want. You put forth the effort to write a strong cover letter and tailor your resume. You get a call for a phone interview. You start to accept that this might really happen. You get an in-person interview. You give a great interview. You are charming, you’re personable, you have strong answers prepared, and you’re sensing that the committee liked you. After you leave, you start thinking that “this could be it! I might finally get the job I deserve!” You even start to publicly tell your references and circle that you did really well, and you are waiting for an offer any minute.

And then, you get the rejection email.

What’s your reaction?

Do you work through the stages of denial, anger, acceptance? Do you beat yourself up because, on second thought, you must have seriously misjudged that one question? Do you rage at the “system” because *obviously* they must have just ushered you in for appearances, when really they had an internal candidate all along? Do you get angry that nobody has “made up” a job for you as their internal candidate?

I started thinking about this after reading “A new Generation of Failures: Let’s Show Them How It’s Done” article from HigherEdJobs. It unpacks Millennials’ “heightened fear of professional failure.” I really liked the article’s points.

  • In my experience, Millennials do have a heightened fear of professional failure. I would add Gen Xers to this list, too.
  • They (and we, if we include Gen Xers) have reasons to feel this way that are beyond our control. “External forces, like downsizing, organizational politics or [bad] supervisors” all pose real threats.
  • But so does a threat that lives within us all: Self-doubt, which can be crippling.
  • “While failure is inevitable, forward is optional.” I absolutely 💛 this. I may even put it on a sticky on my bulletin board.

What is within our control is whether we choose to take the reins anyway and keep going, in spite of real threats that could mean failure, or perceived threats that stop us from trying. Emphasis in the following quote is mine:

This is the forward part of failure. Take it from someone (me) who failed when it wasn’t her fault, failed when it was her fault, and failed when who was at fault was really of no consequence. The point of the matter is to avoid getting stuck on blame, pain, and shame.

Dr. Shai L. Butler

In other words: You’re Right! The system IS broken. Let’s say you didn’t get that job in my example BECAUSE there was an internal candidate. It happens all the time, and yes, it is complete BS. It is also beyond your control. So just because you’re right that the system is broken, and it wasn’t your fault you didn’t get the job, the question remains: so what are YOU going to do about it?

Raging about the injustice is all fine and good – and yes, you’re “allowed” to feel that way. Anyone would! And we should all speak up about how unfair these hiring practices are.

But what does raging against the system do for YOU? You aren’t getting anywhere while we all age waiting for a system to correct itself. You don’t need to stay stuck in that feeling. It doesn’t serve you. You shouldn’t stop trying to find a different great job. Don’t resume doubting yourself. Don’t talk yourself OUT of believing you did your very best. I see this all the time. False logic being “if I had REALLY done my best, they would have chosen me. I must not be good enough.” Sound familiar? I hope it doesn’t. But I bet it does. Assigning blame – internally or externally – doesn’t help or serve you, or move you closer to career satisfaction. So keep moving. Because this self-talk can lead to immobilization. A body in rest stays at rest.

It’s so easy to stay stuck in the blame stage. I’ve done it. And it’s HARD to get out of it, too. But you must choose to move forward. Because that “forward is optional” part is really true. It is absolutely a choice. Choose to get over the blame stage.

So how to get over that? I personally turn to a comedy podcast while I’m on the elliptical, or a venty “un”happy hour with close friends. Maybe pound it out in a kickboxing class. Maybe go douse your sorrows in a plate of nachos. But tomorrow? Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move from blame back to looking at your career plan and taking an action.

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