Letting go of your failures

I was rejected by the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford. I was rejected by the Junior Advisor (JA) Selection Committee (SelCom). I lost an election for Vice President of Community and Diversity for College Council (CC) and was rejected as a Tour Guide, twice. These are just some examples of things I’ve failed at in my time at the College. I write about them today because I want to help start a conversation about failure at Williams that’s long overdue.

As a bit of background, I recently won a Truman Scholarship for after graduation. The communications office wrote a press release about me. In what was perhaps the greatest honor of my life, @WilliamsCollege tweeted about me. (The greatest honor part is a joke, although I did proudly retweet it). I say all of this not because I hope to brag about my success or “settle scores” with those who deemed me unworthy for honors I didn’t receive. Rather, I want to provide a concrete example, for all of those would-be JAs, Williams Outdoor Orientation on Living as First-Years Leaders, actors in performances and everyone else at Williams who has been gravely disappointed, of an important fact: your failure is not final and it does not define you.

It is easy to say, in some abstract way, that failures lead to success. It is much more difficult to talk about specific failures. If I’m being completely honest, it still pains me to think back on some of my own rejections. But in a community that has long struggled against the idea of “effortless perfection,” I hope that I can convince those of you who are struggling silently with some great disappointment that things will turn around. I hope I can put a face to the oft-expressed but seldom fleshed out idea that rejection is not final.

Even if we understand the idea that rejection doesn’t have to define us, though, we can all have trouble moving on from failure. When looking back, I think we have a tendency to whitewash our setbacks by telling stories about how we couldn’t have succeeded without first going through those setbacks. At least for me, I don’t think that has actually been true. I don’t think getting a rejection letter from SelCom taught me anything about myself, about success or about anything else abstract and important. Chiefly, I think that being rejected sucked and that there wasn’t much of a silver lining I could find. I just had to accept the fact that I had been rejected and move on.

Unfortunately, moving on wasn’t easy because if you’re anything like me, you aren’t used to failing. You went through your early life winning awards and avoiding setbacks; indeed, you ended up here at Williams. So when you apply for something, you expect to win. You understand that it’s competitive and that lots of people get rejected, but you’ve been hearing that your whole life. It hasn’t actually happened to you, yet. That’s why losing something you care about is a real gut punch. You haven’t even imagined losing in a significant way. Sure, it might have crossed your mind but it was soon been chased away by reassuring thoughts of success. Failing at Williams is so hard for precisely this reason. We’ve always succeeded and, to make things worse, no one around here talks about failure. I’ve certainly hidden my failures in the past for fear that others would think less of me if they knew I’d been rejected.

I’m writing today because I’m tired of hiding my failures and I hope you are too. Let’s stop being afraid to talk, and even laugh, about the times we’ve just come up short. My application for JA was terrible; there’s no way I deserved to be chosen based on that application. And you know what? I’m okay with it and, even better, I’m not ashamed to admit that I was rejected.

My bottom line is this: I hope that all Ephs remember that we can’t always win, but we can let our successes define us while leaving our failures behind. So if you’re dealing with a rejection from WOOLF, from a job or from anything else on this crazily competitive campus, I beg you to look forward. Your next success is right around the corner.

Brian McGrail ’14 is a history and political economy major from Arlington, Va. He lives in Morgan.

  • Ali Tafreshi

    Well-written. I like the last paragraph. You inspire me to write.