This is the week that high school seniors heard back from colleges about whether they got accepted. This letter is personal. I wrote it to my daughter after she didn’t get accepted at her top choice college. For those of us who are parents, seeing our children disappointed is heart-breaking. Yet, we must also teach them resilience. After I shared the letter with a friend, she suggested that I share it with others. It is about how to handle failure. I hope it serves all of you reading it.
I am writing to you with a heavy heart. I feel tears in my eyes that I fight to push back, even though there is no one here to see me cry.
I feel a mixture of sadness and hope as I write this letter. I know yesterday was a hard day for you and I still feel your hurt. You giggled a little as you shared with me your news about not getting into your top choice college.
The giggle was to perhaps hide the disappointment and sadness you felt. It showed me that even at this young age, you can handle disappointment and not look like you’re taking it so seriously. I’m sad that you couldn’t feel vulnerable enough in front of me to just cry or get angry or express emotion. I guess I taught you that. For that I am both glad and sorry. Glad that you know how to maintain composure for all the times you will fail and need to be composed. There are many places where our difficult emotions are not welcome. Sorry that you felt you had to keep your guard up with me.
What I want to say is that in life you already have and will likely experience many more failures. Failure is simply not getting what you dreamed of or expected or worked hard for. But there is nothing simple about it. It’s damn hard. It’s disappointing. It’s sad. It makes you mad. It comes in relationships, work, and lots of other places. What I want you to know is that experiencing failure does not make YOU a failure.
If you’re going to dream big for yourself, know that you will fail big. I hope you learn how to fully experience failure. What I have learned in my 50 years is that we all have different ways of handling failure. I often avoided failure. I did that by not dreaming big enough. Who wants to handle the disappointment? I took some of the easy classes in college because it was so important to maintain a 4.0 GPA. I was afraid that if I got anything less than that, it would destroy that carefully built self-concept I had of myself (and others had of me) that I was super-smart. It was more important for me to maintain that self-concept than to really challenge myself. I hope you don’t make that mistake.
Early in my life, I didn’t really put myself out there in love either. Who wants to let someone know that you like them? No, it was better to pretend that I didn’t care. That way I didn’t have to deal with the messy emotion of feeling hurt or rejected. In doing that, I shut down that part of me that wanted to express love and wanted love in return. It was safe. I learned later that it was also numbing. You cannot really experience joy if you shut out sorrow. I hope you don’t make that mistake.
Many times, I blamed myself or others for failure. It happened the time I got fired from my job. I first blamed my boss. Then I blamed myself. I assumed I wasn’t good enough and lost my spark. It took me a long time to get it back.
What I want you to know is that this failure thing is hard. But here’s what I’ve also learned in my 50 years. I’ve learned that failure is a necessary part of life if we are going to feel alive. And part of our work in our lives is learning how to fully and directly feel all of the emotions we have. We must experience the sadness, anger, frustration. We can cry, stomp our feet, lick our wounds. What I have learned is that during these trying times, the best way to deal with failure is to fully feel, and give ourselves kindness and love we would a good friend. What we must not do is make up a story about how we are flawed, or someone else is flawed, or life itself is not to be trusted.
Our work is to feel our emotions without making up stories about our own worth, or that of others. Emotions are like the weather. They change. The stories we make up endure. They make us feel safe, but they don’t serve us. Life is a movie, constantly changing with unexpected twists and turns, and the necessary turbulence that wants us to grow, to feel, to learn, to love, to contribute, and to trust. I hope you will learn to trust in yourself, in others, and in the basic design and goodness of life. You have so many gifts to offer – your smarts, your quick wit, your love of bringing people together, your joy, your sense of adventure. You can live fully only when you learn fully how to get comfortable with failure. May you live life fully, love, soar, stare failure in the eye, and keep dancing.