I Could Do Anything (if I only knew what it was)

Rejection stinks.
Especially when it happens to you.

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Image credit: Amazon

Or in this case, me.

Last month I learned that my application to a leadership institute at work was just one point shy of an invitation into the program.

The Women Staff Leadership Development Institute, or WSLDI, as it’s called, is a gold mine of opportunity, but the selection process is rigorous and competitive.  Each year, only twelve candidates across my campus are offered one of a dozen highly coveted spots to receive career coaching and leadership training.

I was number thirteen.

[While I’m not superstitious, this turn of events certainly hasn’t bolstered my opinion of that number.]

After learning my fate, I booked an appointment with the WSLDI director to discuss my application. To be honest, I suspected her polite email – suggesting I could “enhance” a future submission – would simply translate to “nice try, sweetie. Good luck next time.”

Instead, she surprised me. And it wasn’t just about the point.

“We enjoyed reading your essays. Everyone agreed you’re a strong writer.”

[Well, that felt good.]

“But you lost the most points on your career action plan. You’d written so well until
then, and frankly…we were disappointed.”

[Uh-oh.]

As we reviewed my “plan,” what became painstakingly evident was that it didn’t have much “action.” Instead, it resembled a vague, cringe-worthy ramble that clearly didn’t align with the confidence I’d projected early on. [I wish I could have blamed it on the pain meds I’d been taking while recovering from oral surgery, but one disoriented essay wouldn’t explain how I’d pulled off the rest.]

As we both realized – and I sheepishly admitted – the problem wasn’t that I didn’t know how to write. I simply didn’t know what to write.  I didn’t think I had an answer they’d be looking for, because surely someone with two master’s degrees ought to have figured out what she wants to be when she grows up. Right?

Wrong.

Even as I verbalized my confession, the light came on.
My lack of an answer was the answer. And I didn’t have to be afraid to admit that.

In fact, as our conversation continued, the director gently pointed out I’m exactly the type of candidate they’re looking for. The program’s mission is to empower women who want to grow, but could use a little guidance.

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So, while waiting another year to reapply will be hard, I learned a valuable lesson about transparency and vulnerability.

Then, I got out my pen. And started writing.

I also went to the library. And started reading.

Not only had I come away with fresh ideas to enliven my pitiful prose, but at the director’s suggestion, I picked up the sequel to Barbara Sher’s Wishcraft. Because even though Wishcraft is about finding how to get what you want,  I Could Do Anything is about figuring out what you really want.

Though Sher doesn’t give any answers, she does provide plenty of tools to discover them. It’s not just self-help; it’s self-empowerment.

Even some of the chapter titles reflected my thoughts perfectly:

  • I Want Too Many Things; I’m All Over the Map
  • Help! I’m not Ready to Be Born Yet
  • I’ve Lost My Big Dream – There’s Nothing Left

I’m only halfway through the book, so I won’t comment on the second two yet. But I know all about wanting too many things and having a hard time settling on just one. [Consider the fact that I double-majored in college, earned two master’s degrees, and learned to play two instruments. Sometimes choosing is just too hard.]

In Sher’s terminology, people who are “all over the map” are “scanners.” They want to taste everything, as opposed to “divers,” whose interests are well-defined:

“To scanners, the universe is a treasure house full of a million works of art, and life is hardly long enough to see them all. Robert Frost defined divers and scanners very neatly when he said ‘A scholar is someone who sticks to something. A poet is someone who uses whatever sticks to him.'”

This was one of the problems I’d encountered in my “action plan” essay. I could see my career wandering in a number of directions, though I felt compelled to pick one. But I couldn’t. So I floundered. And became frustrated.

But frustration, Sher says, is actually quite useful. Taken in stride, frustration can help create action, not make you give up.

Setting my own dilemma aside, I saw – or rather, heard – Sher’s observation born out during a broadcast of Performance Today earlier this week. The host shared an interview with pianist Jon Nakamatsu, a gold-medalist in the Van Cliburn competition who recounted the number of times he failed before making it to the top:

“Ultimately, I have grown more through the reflection, the personal struggles, and the motivation that losing helped created. The fact that we lose only underscores our courage; that we risked leaving our comfort zones, that we invested great amounts of time and money, and that we exposed ourselves to public judgment of something intensely personal, all for the promise of nothing. So I ask you to stand with me and be proud to be a loser. For as a loser, you are anything but a failure.”

[You can hear the preface to his remarks during hour 2, starting at 39:00 ]

While I certainly don’t like to lose, I actually gained the chance to leverage my loss for another purpose. A couple weeks ago, my department launched a pilot program, whereby one full-time staff member would be invited to participate in team leadership meetings throughout the year. Professional development on a smaller scale, but an irresistible opportunity, nonetheless.

After building the case for my candidacy, I concluded my statement of interest thus:

Earlier this summer I requested library support to apply for the Women Staff Leadership Development Institute. In August, I learned I had missed the 2018-19 cohort by just one point. (They rate and accept the top twelve applicants; I was number thirteen.) As I wait to reapply next spring, I would like to continue developing my leadership skills and experience. The pilot program would be an excellent opportunity to do so.”

This time, I was a winner. I attended my first meeting last week.

Sher would be proud.

It’s like the statement I keep on my fridge, clipped from a grocery magazine. Apparently, even the produce aisle can also contain pearls of wisdom:

“At the most difficult moments of my life, when it seemed that every door was closed to me, the taste of those apricots comes back to comfort me with the notion that abundance is always within reach, if only one knows how to find it. – Isabel Allende”

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Or, as Julie Andrews succinctly claimed in The Sound of Music: “When God closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.”

I’m not a famous author or actress, but here’s my take: Don’t let defeat define you. Just be ready for the next opportunity. Because whether or not you care for apricots, abundance is there for the taking, if you look hard enough.

And sometimes, a healthy dose of rejection may help you find it.

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