I started playing the piano at age 4. At age 12 I begun to play in church. There was no written music for the songs we sang, only guitar chords, so I learned to play by ear. After high school I taught music and began to write my own songs. I had always planned for music to be a big part of my life. At the age of 22, after doing some travelling and some bible school courses, I applied to the School of Music at the University of Manitoba. The plan was to do my music degree and then move overseas to become a missionary. I was sure that this was God’s plan for my life.
University scared me, it was not something that was encouraged in my faith community, but I knew I wanted to continue learning. I loved school and I loved music. I send in my application and found my way to the place I was to do my audition. It was as nerve racking as every piano exam I had ever taken, except that instead of one examiner there were three. I felt that the audition went okay, but did not feel that it was amazing. Honestly, I wasn’t worried, I believed that God was directing me to this program and so I would be going. There was no question about it.
I waited patiently to hear back, excited about all the things I was going learn. I wanted to take composition classes and orchestration and possibly learn other instruments. When I finally got the letter, it was in a small envelope. I knew that this was not a promising sign. I opened it and read it carefully. The letter was to inform me that I had not been accepted into the school of music. I was dumbfounded. I figured there must be a mistake. I had acquired a higher level of training than what was required for entry, I had always planned to do this and besides, this was God’s plan!
I called the university to ask why I was rejected. I was told that piano is the instrument with the most applicants and that a large percentage applicants do not get accepted. I was informed that my audition was not up to their standards and I should consider hiring a private teacher and re-applying the next year. I was in shock.
This, obviously, isn’t the only time I’ve failed in life, not by a long shot, but it was one of the bigger ones that impacted me for a long time. Failure hits all of us at one time or another with varying degrees of shock, shame and impact. Over the years, I’ve come to notice several ways that failure can affect us and how we might better recover from it, and even grow and thrive as a result.
1. Disconnect Your Identity from the Event
How much of your identity is tied to this event? Who you are, is tied to so much more than what you do for your job, one talent or a specific title you process. It includes, history, values, relationship, personality, and much more.
If you have put all of your self-worth into one area of your life believing that this one thing is what makes you “valuable, important, worthy, lovable, etc.” then you are setting yourself up for a pretty big crash.
It’s important to dig deeper to look at, and maybe even ask other why they care about you, what they see as your good qualities and find meaning in those things. Look at what else is important to you, what are your values? What is unique about you?
For me, I had received a lot of positive affirmation for my piano playing, at a very young age. I had done well in music festivals, impressed my peers, was ‘shown off’ by my parents and got a lot of positive feedback from my church community. All of this was at a very young age, and contributed to my sense of self, but I needed to figure out who I was, with or without music.
2. Re-Evaluate your ‘Locus of Control’
When you experience a failure it can be easy to believe that it was all your fault or to believe that none of it was your fault.
Most likely, neither are completely true. It’s important to examine all sides carefully to get a more truthful picture. This is best done without bitterness, blame or shame. There are usually a wide variety of factors in play for why things don’t work out at a particular time. Finding out what they are will make moving ahead and succeeding the future, more likely.
In my case, I made the assumption that I failed the audition because I had not understood God’s will for me. I took all the blame, but still believed that this was outside of my control and so had no way of learning from this perspective or finding any way forward. It left me frozen for a long time.
In hindsight, if I could have acknowledged the competitive nature of the process, the limitations the university was under in terms of how many students they could admit each year, been realistic about my musical skills and considered the fact that I had not had a music teacher for some years and that perhaps there were other avenues into the program, I might have found a way to move forward.
3. Examine the Context that Contributes to Your sense of Failure
How you feel about a situation you label “my failure” is going to be influenced by the context you are in and the meaning that is made of this ‘failure.’
It is often difficult to distinguish between your own negativity and what you believe others things of you and what others really do think of you.
This is also separate from and the actual implications of the failure.
What meaning do you make of the experience? Do you see it as a moral failing, a confirmation of your own ineptitude, another piece of evidence that the whole world is against you and you will never be able to get ahead? Or, like myself, an indication that your entire spiritual life has been a hoax? Obviously these ideas will influence how strongly you react to the situation.
Also, there are very real messages that your family, community or society might give to you. For example, I’ve heard of family members telling a woman who miscarried that it was her fault and that she had failed her child and her partner and was a failure as a woman and a mother. It is up to that woman to decide whether or not to believe these thing, but it is a low hit none the less and it would be pretty difficult not to be impacted by that kind of verbal abuse.
Challenge your thinking and the messages you are receiving from others. What are others saying about your failure and the context? What is influencing your perception of the size of your failure and your potential for recovery? Who benefits from these messages or influences? DO they measure up as hard and fast evidence about who you are? Are these your own beliefs? Does believing these things help you to get to your goals in life? If not, what might be worth re-considering?
4. Open your Eyes to New Opportunities
Missing an opportunity or failing in some endeavour means that one pathway may be closed to you for the time being. It does not mean that all pathways are closed, or that this path is necessarily closed forever. Look around you. What has opened up as a result of this situation? What can you consider that you might not have considered if this situation had worked out? This is a chance to explore options, to dream, to reconsider and to take stock. What have you really lost? What do you still have? And, what have you gained in this process?
Today, I look back on my application to the school of music and am so grateful that I did not get in. If I had, I’m sure I could have found my way to some meaningful career, and who knows what that would have looked like, but I love where I am today and I doubt getting into that program would not have led me here. For some years, I was frustrated that I did not re-apply, but today, I have no regrets.
5. Challenge Your own Definition of Failure
In my mind, failure is “getting it wrong.” It is measured by whatever standard is held up by the person embracing the failure. Even when others tell you you’ve failed, a teacher, a parent, a coach as family member, it does not become our failure, or something we are responsible for or that we care about, unless we take on those same standards.
When feeling ashamed, guilty or embarrassed,because you believe that you’ve failed, consider what you might have done wrong that you need to fix or learn from? If you believe that you’ve failed and that there was nothing you could have done about it, or nothing you can do to fix it, it might not have been your failure. It might have been the situation that failed you. If you could have done something differently or can still do something about it, believing that YOU are a failure, that failure is part of your identity, will only serve to keep you immobilized and unable to recover.
This idea that “it’s okay for others to make mistakes, but not me,” is a form of narcissism that will not spur you on to greater things.
It will not keep you from making a mistake in the future, it will only stop you from moving forwards.
Each of us makes decisions based on the information we currently have and our experiences and skills (physical and emotional) at that time. Knowing what you wish you’d done differently is not the same as beating yourself up for not doing it differently.
I challenge you to go through these steps with their questions and glean from them nourishment and tools to carry you forward. Your ‘failure’ is an opportunity. Don’t miss out on a great future ahead of you.
See also When You’ve Been Accused
Also check out “I’m Sorry” 8 Steps to a Good Apology