He who will do anything to avoid failure will almost certainly do something worthy of a failure.
Ryan Holliday, Ego Is The Enemy
One challenge of my 20’s – one defining difficulty to surmount before my 30’s – is acclimating to rejection.
With that being said, failure and rejection should not be a celebration as some self-help scholars would suggest. Rather, I simply wish to taste failure and rejection enough to learn an important lesson – a lesson I intellectually comprehend but emotionally resist.
Failure is not fatal. Rejection is not personal.
In my early 20’s, my psyche was a teetering house of cards propped up by vacuous praise and unearned arrogance. I thought I was King Shit of Turd Island. However, once I dropped out of college, the dull roar of physical, emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual inadequacies became too loud to ignore.
Fortunately, allowing my rickety foundation to crumble paved the way for a sturdier foundation of discipline and humility. While I am yet to fully realize these qualities, they starkly contrast with my narcissistic past.
However, one struggle that continues to haunt me from an earlier age is chronic procrastination and self-sabotage out of fear of rejection and failure. This kind of self-handicapping took the form of slacking off during exams, rarely asking women out on dates, and neglecting my physical training during football season.
In my mind, a twisted form of reality emerged. I am awesome, but everyone else might not realize it. If I hold myself back – if I fail to give a full effort – then I can always cling to thoughts of awesomeness. Whatever happens, I can adhere to the following line of questioning and preserve my self-image.
“Did I succeed? Wow, that’s great. I wasn’t even trying that hard. I must be awesome.”
“Did I fail? Well, it’s not like I gave a full effort. If I did give a full effort, I likely would have succeeded. I am awesome.”
This is a toxic way to live – and not just because I restrict my potential. No, the most toxic part of this mindset is protection from the downs (and common rebounds) that follow failure and rejection.
When we fail, stoicism teaches lessons of resilience. On one hand, it does not pay to assume that everything is our fault as some self-help books suggest.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot to gain from taking personal responsibility for our own habits and mindsets. But we do not live in vacuums. The world is full billions of competing humans as well as countless chance events precipitated by nature, timing, or luck.
Therefore, we don’t benefit from assuming that everything is our fault (though we would be wise to err on the side of responsibility). Rather, we should develop a discerning eye for what we can control.
It also pays to understand the role of chance when we consider our successes. Sure, we can “create our own luck” through the active pursuit of possibilities. But no venture begins with a 100% certain success rate.
On the other hand, if we are too loose with this discernment, we can descend into hopelessness, assuming that nothing we do can change the course of our life. Just as it may be unhealthy to assume you have full control of your destiny (like a god), assuming you have no control (a psychological concept known as learned helplessness) can prove equally destructive.
Bad things will happen. Sometimes we will fail. Sometimes people will see what we have to offer and say “no.” The influence of this “no” may come from things we can change as well as things we cannot.
For example, perhaps I approach a woman I am interested in and ask for a date. Despite being single, she says she is not interested.
Is it my fault? Perhaps. Maybe I could stand to lose some weight and develop a more physically attractive frame. Perhaps I turned her off with offputting social graces. Maybe my sense of style is completely senseless. Each of these qualities can change and develop over time with the right mindset and habits.
But maybe it’s not my fault. Maybe she is into Korean men. Maybe she is a lesbian. Perhaps she was tired/hungry/sick and no amount of charm or attractiveness would have changed her mind that day.
Asking people why they reject you is not common (at least where I am from). It can rapidly spiral into awkwardness. Most people will withhold brutally honest statements like “sorry, you’re too fat” or “your social graces are far uncouth for me.” EPIK does not disclose rejection rationales primarily to avoid discrimination liability and to dodge an inevitably awkward and difficult exchange.
But the thing about rejection – the thing I intellectually comprehend and fail to practice – is that most people recover from rejection. When you make a hornet’s day, the sting is not pleasant. But the pain is temporary and rarely fatal. In 99% of cases, a single rejection or failure will not be the end of the world.
I don’t want to lie on my deathbed as an old man and wonder what life would have been like if I took more chances. How would my life have turned out if I asked her out? If I had pursued that job? If I had lived true to myself?
I don’t want to wonder. I want to live. If I spend my whole life wondering because I fear actually failing, then that is a failure in and of itself. By seeking to avoid rejection and failure, I am failing in the worst possible way.
If the unexamined life is not worth living, then neither is a life free of failure.