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The Lessons of Failure

My hands shook as I opened the long-awaited letter that would determine whether or not I would be accepted into the National Honor Society. This was the moment I had been waiting for–this is what I’ve worked so hard for. My eyes moved eagerly over the long paragraph of text. My heart sank.

I was rejected.

This wasn’t my first encounter with failure, but this stood out, because at the time it felt super important. To me, this was more than just some smart kids club – this was my future.

Despite how devastating this experience was, it inspired a series of events that led to reflection, acceptance, and ultimately, growth. And I learned something along the way, too: our failures only define us if we let them.

It was rough at first. In the days following the letter, I felt empty. I had given it my all, but it wasn’t enough. I had made the mistake of making this failure a reflection of my self-worth, which only made it worse.

We tend to do that a lot–attach our self-worth to some material goal. We often define ourselves by our failures and successes, forgetting everything else that makes us who we are. We use every failure as evidence that we aren’t good enough, almost rooting against ourselves.

That’s no way to think.

After a while, I realized that I wasn’t getting very far feeling sorry for myself. Deep down, I knew that I wasn’t a complete failure, even if I made myself think that for a while. I remembered all of the things that I’ve succeeded at and all of the people who support and love me unconditionally and gathered the courage to move on.

I decided to change the way I thought about failure. I viewed it not as an excuse to shame myself, but as a learning opportunity. It was a challenge from the universe to grow and rise above, a challenge that I was glad to take.

I was lucky that I had a second chance to apply to the NHS again next year, so I made a plan for how I could improve for next time. I also looked into other activities and leadership positions I could do to build up my resume. It wasn’t easy; it was demoralizing when even some of those opportunities fell through. At times I doubted myself and my ability to do better and succeed in the future. But it was better to try than do nothing at all.

And I think it’s paying off. Not only do I feel more confident in my ability to get in next time, but I also recognize that not getting in isn’t the end of the world.

I remember this one anecdote in Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing. King would collect rejection slips from fiction contests and display them on his wall. He channeled something negative and demoralizing to most into something motivating. He celebrated his failures along with his successes, and that’s something we can all work towards doing.

I’ve had my fair share of failures in my life, and I’m sure I’ll have many more. But looking back, I’m grateful for all of them. Each failure has taught me something about myself and about the world. That’s what life is all about, isn’t it? Learning and growing and experiencing even if it hurts.

So go out there and take failure as a challenge to grow. Dare to dream and do without the promise of success or fear of failure. And always remember—just because you experience failure doesn’t make you one.

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