"At my Rhodes interview they lined us all up at the end to announce the winners. I was the first alternate. I remember it feeling almost like an out of body experience. My blood pressure dropped and I felt a hollow feeling in my stomach. I watched myself, as if from outside, put on a smile and congratulate the winners. I accepted a few condolences with as much grace as I could muster and left as quickly as etiquette would allow. When I got back to my apartment, I sat down in my dress clothes and cried. I couldn’t believe after all that work, it was over just like that."
For years I never wanted to tell that story. I didn’t put it on my resume. I was ashamed of my failure. It was only when I applied to my position to the Honors Program as national scholarship coordinator that I reclaimed and repurposed the story as my most important qualification - no matter how well we recruit and prepare national scholarship and fellowship applicants, most of them won’t be successful in winning these ultra-competitive awards.
Over the years, I’ve talked with hundreds of students about the risks of applying for these awards. “You can’t be a good candidate without falling in love, and that means taking the risk that your heart will be broken.” I’ve debriefed with dozens of fantastic nominees who came up just short. Often these are students who have rarely failed in their academic endeavors. Failure questions, in various forms, have also become popular in scholarship interviews, so Dr. Jamie Moshin (LSA Communications and Media) and I practice them a lot with finalists in their preparations. In short, although I am privileged to work with the very best students at U-M, I talk about failure a lot.
Here are several practical tips for reframing how we talk about failure.
First of all, what do I mean by “failure”? Primarily, I mean when we fail to attain some goal or end that we set for ourselves. However, failures can also be of the sort elicited by the interview question: “Tell me about a time when you were disappointed in yourself?” Examples of this kind might include when we failed to keep a commitment or allowed our priorities to get out of whack.
In Designing Your Life Burnett and Evans talk about keeping a “failure journal” in which we place each failure in one of three categories. The first category are “flukes” - cases where blame for the failure lies not with anything that we did, but in unforeseeable external circumstances. The key with flukes is not to be knocked off our game. We need to acknowledge them, forgive ourselves, and move on to the next opportunity. Obviously we won’t want to overuse this category, always assigning blame to external circumstances. But neither should this category be ignored. In ONSF competitions, it is very difficult for candidates not to see failing to win the nomination or scholarship as indicative of something wrong with their application, interview, or themselves. I often have to remind them that sometimes it is just about the competition.
The second two categories are different types of learning opportunities. The first of these is learning from our failures about weaknesses that can be improved. What went wrong and why? What, specifically, can we learn from this experience? How can we plan for things to be different next time? Writing this out, or debriefing it with a mentor or a friend, is usually not pleasant. But it provides both valuable self-knowledge and removes some of the sting of the failure by focusing on things that are fixable. National scholarship applications and interviews can be valuable learning tools because, while their goals are important in themselves, they are always means to a greater end - to a graduate degree, to a particular career, or to making a valuable contribution to the world - ends that can usually be achieved in other ways. While most of my applicants are unsuccessful in obtaining the scholarships to which they apply, most of them are fabulously successful in obtaining their greater ends, often because of what they learned from the application experience itself.
The Burnett and Evans’ third type is also learning experience, but of a different kind. Sometimes through failures we learn about things that we’re just not good at - or that are fixable only at the cost of taking time and effort away from other activities that are more suited to our natural talents and interests. The valuable thing to learn here is what we enjoy and what we don’t, what we’re good at and what we’re not. While there is a crucial place for working to improve ourselves in areas that are important to our goals, in general a winning strategy is to design our lives to do the things that we’re naturally best at and love to do.
A positive way to think about this is team building. A popular interview question type is: “If you were undertaking a project, what sort of team would you build?” The question is really about our strengths and weaknesses. How can we design a team that maximizes our natural strengths and shores up our weaknesses with the complementary strengths of others? Thinking through our failures is a valuable way to gain this self-knowledge, and also the modesty that being successful doesn’t require being good at everything.
Another way to think positively about these types of weakness is to realize that often they are the “shadow side” of our positive traits. This has been one of the most important lessons that I’ve learned in my personal life. But, to give an example that’s not too personal, those who have worked with me know that I think (and usually talk) very quickly, and that I’m good at the 10,000-foot synoptic view of key issues or distinctions. These are both traits that make me a good fellowships advisor - but the shadow side is that I’m often not as detail-oriented as I’d like to be. I am, for example, a terrible proof-reader because my eyes don’t read what’s actually on the page; my brain quickly supplies what it guesses is supposed to be there. When I set out to hire a program assistant for ONSF, I knew I needed to find someone whose detail-oriented approach would complement my own strengths.
One final reframing technique applies not just to failures and weaknesses, but to negative experiences in life more broadly - including negative things that have happened to us through no fault of our own. When we can use our negative experiences to help others, whether through empathic connections or as motivation to create change, we give them a positive role in our own stories. This is the backbone for most recovery programs and peer support networks. It is also the archetype for some of the most powerful stories I’ve read in personal statements or heard in interviews. While it doesn’t apply exclusively to failures, it can be a powerful tool in reframing failure stories and putting them to good use - as I’ve been able to do with my own Rhodes interview experience.