Field Notes: Getting real with failure: 5 hard-won lessons

July 24, 2019
  • Admissions and Recruitment
  • Competencies
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"Field Notes" is a regular AACRAO Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at connect@aacrao.org.

by Ginnifer Cié Gee, EdD, Associate Vice Provost Career-Engaged Learning, University of Texas San Antonio

The greatest teacher, failure is. – Yoda

At the end of the spring semester I had the pleasure of taking my former public speaking professor out to lunch to celebrate his retirement.  When I arrived at the Communication Department to meet him, he handed me a packet. While cleaning out his desk with 30 years of accumulated student artifacts, he found a photo of me from 1999 when I represented the university in a speech competition.  If that wasn’t enough of a throwback, he also had the transcripts of my speeches.

You may assume I was entertained by a walk down memory lane and that this "Field Note" will be a heartwarming recount of my undergraduate career. If so, you would be incorrect. Although it had been 20 years, I immediately felt the cold slap of failure and rejection. 

Follow me on a journey of self-reflection and a little lesson in failure.

The celebration that didn't come

In 1999, I was a 20-year-old Communication major.  I loved public speaking and seized any opportunity that allowed me in front of an audience.  The Battle of Flowers speech competition was held each April as part of San Antonio’s celebration of Fiesta.  This oratorical scuffle invited area college students to compete by presenting a 10-minute memorized discourse of Texas history.  While some might consider this event their worst nightmare, I was over the moon with excitement. I entered for the first time in 1999 and was awarded 4th place out of 12.  Moderately pleased, I was eager to try again as I now had experience and knew what to expect.  

As soon as the new topic was announced, I hit the ground running.  My research was more intense and I rehearsed for hours in front of a home video camera acting as my own coach and critic.  On the day of the competition, full of confidence and a bit of arrogance, I performed my speech. Feeling a bit narcissistic with satisfaction, I sat impatiently for the rest of the speakers to finish so I could receive my award and allow the celebration to commence.

But celebration never came.  My name was never called. I did not even place in the top five. Disappointment overwhelmed me as I accepted condolences from my professor and forced congratulatory remarks to my obviously superior competitors.  Awkwardly fleeing the scene, I managed to make it to my car before bursting into tears. 

It isn’t always the outcome that is a measure of growth and learning.

 

First came feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing.  Then, perhaps as a self-coping mechanism, I rationalized how it wasn’t my fault through conspiracy theory and projected blame: It was rigged, they were passing the award around for political reasons, the other competitors had ‘connections’ that I didn’t have, and so on.  I graduated that spring and thus my dream of Battle of Flowers Speech Champion was never realized.  Obviously this event didn’t squash my career of speaking in public, but I have always carried with me a sentiment that I was treated unfairly.  

After lunch with my professor, I hurried back to my office to begin reading the old transcripts of the speeches.  I began with the 4th place speech.  I found it a bit simplistic, but it was factual and told an entertaining story.  I decided it was 4th place material and the judges were correct in their evaluation.  Then I began to read the dreaded failed speech. It…was…terrible! There was no consistency, no flow, and it was basically just a regurgitation of facts.  I had not synthesized the information nor made it enjoyable to listen to and there was no identifiable conclusion! I sat back in my chair and laughed out loud.  I finally understood why I didn’t place. I was surprised at my feeling of intense relief. There was no self-loathing or regret, only the understanding that it wasn’t my best work.  I didn’t deserve to win and that was O.K. However, I think the true source of my relief (20 years later) was knowing that this little failed speech was only a tiny bump in the road and it didn’t stop me from pushing myself forward.  

5 lessons learned

The ability to analyze one’s professional performance with high emotional intelligence and an objective eye is sometimes difficult.  I cannot say that even now, 20 years after the infamous Battle of Flowers Speech, that I never have moments of self-doubt or self-riotousness.  However, I am much more cognizant and can manage high emotions to find meaning and growth opportunities. Therefore, no matter how many times I fail, I will always win. 

In my 20 years of failing, I've learned a lot, including the following 5 big lessons:

1. Confidence is important, but over-confidence can be a hindrance.  

2. Let failure fuel your gas tank to better destinations.  

3. Learn from others.  If the only feedback you are getting is from yourself, it’s a problem.  

4. Sometimes hard work doesn’t have the intended results.  We will all put 1,000 hours into something that fails. Remember, it isn’t always the outcome that is a measure of growth and learning.

5. Don’t dwell in the gray wasteland of ambiguity.  We will ‘fail’ and we may never know the real reason why.  For example, I only have my interpretation of the value of my speech; I will never really know why I didn’t win.  When we don’t get the job or get passed for the promotion or our presentation falls flat, uncertainty reduction is what we want.  We either blame ourselves or others to find some kind of answer when in reality there could be an infinite number of reasons. Find the golden nuggets of wisdom and move on.