Failure Is Brutal Even When It’s Small. So, Play Big.

I suffered dual blows recently: a minor physical injury, and major blow to my self esteem. And for a while, I wasn’t sure which was worse.

I pulled a tendon in my foot. Sure, it hurt like a railroad spike to the sole for a few days. I hobbled and mooned about, feeling sorry for myself. But the fact is, the body is magically self healing; self esteem is not. I don’t question the value of my foot because of this minor slip-up. The other, however, throws everything into question.

What Happened

rejected red square  stamp
Take more risks, and you’ll have more failures, it’s good for you!

On Monday, I got a letter from the theater where I’ve been taking class for over a year. I’d applied for consideration to a higher-level class, which requires approval, as opposed to just a credit card. I wasn’t a hundred percent sure I’d get in, but I felt pretty good about it, since the group of friends I met in Level 1 had been taking class, moving up through the levels together, having a great time. I had improved significantly, and had performed well in my last few shows. My two friends and I submitted our names and hoped for the best.

Instead, I got a letter of decline. I was told there were too many applicants, not enough spots. Which I believe, by the way. But what hurt was that my two friends had been accepted. Do I believe I’m so unspeakably bad and untalented I couldn’t get in? No. But still, someone had looked at the list of names and when they got to me, thought, “She can wait.”

No matter how you slice it, it hurts. What also didn’t help matters was that my blood sugar was dropping rapidly, and I was 15 minutes from being straight-up hangry. And in that moment, I turned to glass. I felt myself go rigid and sharp, dangerously fragile, as if, at any moment, I could shatter. Tears started in the corners of my eyes, like tiny shards.

So I was feeling particularly vulnerable as I walked into Home Depot moments later, but held it together long enough to weigh the pros and cons of 12v vs. 18v power drill. I went with the Milwaukee 12-Volt with two lithium batteries and a built-in light, in case I ever have to assemble IKEA furniture in the middle of a blackout.

Then I cried the whole way home. This wasn’t the first time I’d lost it on the streets and subways of Manhattan. But if you’re going to have a breakdown, this is the city to do it in: People don’t freak out or whisper or stare. They look at you, nod and give you your privacy. They’ve been there.

I knew this, too, was a minor letdown in the grand scheme, not a failure with a capital F. I had risked nothing (it’s not like I had publicly embarrassed myself), and lost nothing; I could and would try again. But this was fucking with my belief system.

Imposter Syndrome: Worst Fear Made Real

Like many women, I suffer from Imposter Syndrome, a lifelong condition in which you attribute any modicum of success to the fact that you’ve done a great job of fooling people.

And any failure, even the most small and insignificant can cause an IS flare-up, wherein this inner fiction becomes real: It’s true; I’m not good enough. I’ve been found out. The toxic power of even a smallish failure can call into question every compliment or encouraging word, questioning its authenticity and intent. I haven’t been lying to everyone else; they’ve been lying to me. 

This is the danger of seeing yourself as an on/off switch: You’re either good or bad, a success or a failure; you either have potential, or you’re a joke. It’s a lose/lose.

Will I get over it? Of course. I only have to look back to my freshman year, when I auditioned for the Boston College Dance Ensemble with a friend who was literally a prima ballerina (tip: Don’t stand next to a prima ballerina at a dance audition). She got in (duh); I didn’t. I cried for days, questioned whether I should dance at all.

Then, I got my ass into dance classes, re-auditioned, got accepted, and by senior year, I was the fucking director.

Years later, in my first year as an editor, I attended this big health expo, where you go and schmooze with the ad sales team and their clients. But word got back to me that the ad reps weren’t all too psyched to bring me around, and many didn’t. They weren’t sure how great of an asset I would be. I was mortified—and angry. I remember roaming the expo floor, nibbling samples of organic chocolate as I cried to my boyfriend on the phone. “One day they’ll beg me to go with them!” I swore.

And within a few short years, they were. I became an ad sales favorite. I was that good. Sometimes I turned them down.

Yeah, so, now what?

So here I am again: A newbie in another environment, where I have zero cred or experience. I chided myself at my response to this: Who did I think I was, waltzing in the door, assuming everything should come easy? 

I have a choice: Walk away, miffed and indignant, or I can keep learning, and taking the risk of doing a thing I don’t know if I’m any good at. Part of me thinks, maybe it’s a sign that this isn’t for me, that I should be doing something else. But that’s a loser mentality if you ask me, because it ascribes all responsibility for what I pursue to external forces. Not a fan of that.

The irony of all of this is that not a few hours before the letter came, I had been talking to a client of mine, women-in-business expert Bethany Williams, author of CEO of You, about failure, of all things. She was saying that it’s not whether you fail, but when. Failure is that path you take to get to where you want to be. No one who succeeds at anything ever got there by sidestepping failure. Those losses are a badge of honor.

“I don’t think I’ve had enough failures,” I said. Shit. I couldn’t win at losing, it seemed—I didn’t have enough badges yet.

“I’m going to guess that it’s because you haven’t taken enough risks,” said Bethany.

Maybe she’s right. If so, I have no other option in the face of failure, but to risk again. And again. And neither do you. Playing small doesn’t hurt less—and it gets us nowhere. So I might as well risk bigger. That’s what I’m going to do. And so should you.

(Read why you should get rejected more.)