Because Everyone Feels Like a Baboon Sometimes: On Failure, Resilience and Gratitude
A few weeks ago, I read a great article about mental health during the MBA, and how emotional and psychological struggles are frequently left unvoiced or untreated.
Deeply imbedded is the idea of failure, particularly as it relates to employment (ah, the all-important internship recruiting cycle…) and academic performance. So many people in the community here at Booth are legitimate rockstars, having succeeded at everything practically from the womb. That, coupled with the investment we put into coming here, from a professional, personal and financial perspective, make every stumble feel like a fall, and every fall feel like a catastrophe.
I can’t speak to each person’s personal experience, but I can empathize with feeling deflated, defeated, and even that perhaps business school wasn’t the right choice for me. After internship recruiting last year, I spent a truly prodigious amount of time revisiting every mistake that I had made, every lapse in discipline, every awkward comment. For days I legitimately thought that I didn’t have what it took to succeed at Booth. I feared that I wouldn’t make it in the business world, that I wasn’t fit to be any sort of leader.
Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, this was gratuitous self-flagellation. It took (1) time and (2) the ability to step back and take perspective to reframe the situation. The way I see it, failure is as much an illusion as success—what exactly we’ve lost or gained, with context, can be as large or little as we define it. The lessons learned and the additional mental toughness that we gain, which we carry with us on our continued journey, are what endure. That’s a component of the type of resilience that Booth looks for in applicants: the ability to move on and not get bogged down.
Perspective, of course, is easy to talk about and a lot harder to implement. In many ways, it’s easier when it comes from outside, from people you trust to tell you the truth. Last year, I recounted a personal story in an article for Chicago Business (ChiBus, affectionately) about regaining your equilibrium after recruiting. I think it’s relevant to the topic at hand, so here goes:
Back in late 2008, I’m recruiting for a job in financial services. It’s a great time: Lehman is going down like the Titanic, and banks are rescinding offers left and right. I get an interview, the company is perfect; I can smell success in the air.
And I bomb it. Bomb. It.
No survivors. Tears everywhere.
Back then, if I didn’t call home every three days my folks would put an APB on me. I was too ashamed to call home and let them know that I’d blown my chance. It was two weeks later that I called my frantic mother and let her know that I was okay, just a failure of a person. She was quiet for a long time.
Then she said, “You’re being ridiculous.”
“You’re twenty-one, you have the best education your father and I could afford for you, you’re smart and hardworking and not a total failure at human interaction. You’ll be fine. There’ll be more opportunities if you go out and look for them. And you won’t end up living in the garage; your dad needs it for his golf equipment and the canoe.”
It’s not a funny story. It’s not even an uncommon one. But why it stuck with me is because it required me to think about gratitude, and about circumstance. Much of what we deem our own success is the product of others. Friends we made who gave us the best advice they could, lovers who understood why things were important to us and supported us. Our parents, who tried to raise us right and give us opportunity.
Gratitude is to know that we’ve had help along the way; that we are not alone in our successes, and we are not alone in our failures.
There you have it. Failure is a real part of life. Failure is what makes us human, and being able to move on from failure is how we push the boundaries of what is personally possible for us as individuals.
No one likes to talk about failure as MBAs, since most of us are image-conscious, generally confident people who would one day like to be masters of the universe. But Anakin had to have his hand cut off to become Darth Vader; Alexander the Great had to be humiliated by his father for the impetus to build the greatest empire the world had seen by 33. It’s not how badly you fall from the tree, or how many branches you hit on the way down; it’s about how you climb back up again to regain your position as top banana.
*Readers, you have no idea how long it took me to come up with these puns.