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How to Achieve Even While Losing

– “Your application was not successful” –

rejected_stamp_pshrink35.JPGLast Monday I mentioned being passed over as a candidate for literary fellowships, and the reflex of discouragement that’s so hard to overcome in the face of such news.

Well, last month I received in the mail from a certain prestigious foundation a crisply folded sheet of letterhead which bore the ill-boding phrase:

Your application was not successful.

Now, let me put this news in context.

I’d mailed said application five months before. That is, I’d been waiting five months to know my application’s fate. But that’s still only part of the story, for my efforts in preparing the application extend back four months prior to the day I dropped the package in the mail. In other words, even before that five-month waiting period I’d labored four months, or a good chunk of a year, to prepare the finest, most impressive of applications.

I spent weeks researching the three-page application essays of previous successful fellows. More weeks were spent gathering my thoughts: how to describe as clearly, passionately, and maturely as possible my vision as a novelist and my ambitions for my latest project — all in a mere three pages? How to lay out my original viewpoint and convey my unique voice?

Still more weeks went into composing, revising, and generally agonizing over my essay’s text. I asked respected colleagues to read and criticize it for me, then rewrote, incorporating their suggestions. I put the essay away in a drawer, returned to it refreshed after more than a week, and made additional changes.

At last it was as close to perfect as possible. I’d shaped-up, sharpened, whittled, worked-over and condensed the thing into an impenetrable, impassioned statement of ambition. After reading it a hundred different times, I was certain I’d done everything in my power to make it impossible for the foundation to deny me a fellowship.

But what’s more, I’d distilled as never before my articles of faith as an artist; had encapsulated my commitments as a novelist; had heaved my soul into words and down onto paper.

The essay exuded eligibility, to say the least.stillness_womanonjetty_pshrink35.JPG

So do I have to tell you how forlorn I was, after nine months — yes, nine months — of daily thought about this application, to read the foundation’s generic rejection letter? Need I describe the bitter sting of defeat and decry the injustice of committees?

Actually, I need to tell you something entirely different. For upon reading the words, “Your application was not successful,” my overriding feeling was, seemingly illogically, one of total equanimity. Or you might call it dispassionate contrariness.

Instead of feeling betrayed or trounced or let down, I felt a pervasive sense of … peace.

It’s not braggadocio that compels me to share this, for the feeling was not any sort of arrogant implacability; i.e.: “Shows how little you know!” No, I know that feeling well (I suspect it’s a survival mechanism for all oft-rejected writers — and we are, almost all of us, oft-rejected).

My point here is that I was surprised by my own reaction to the letter. So strange it felt that behind the placid hum of “shanti” a dim voice could be heard to uselessly object: “But aren’t you aghast? How dare they?!”

That voice was not real. It fizzled away after a moment. I could not be ruffled. And over the subsequent days I realized why: Because I knew I had given it my all.

While circumstantially I’d come out a “loser” in this particular selection process, nevertheless, in a more substantial sense, I had achieved.

This is possible, however paradoxical it may seem: You can achieve even while losing.

Though dictionaries may list the words as synonyms, Achievement and Triumph are not necessarily interdependent. You can have one without the other. I suspect sports-players know this well, but it’s rarely acknowledged in other realms of life. A team may trounce its opponent by sheer dumb luck, and triumph without achieving anything of note in the context of the particular game. Conversely, a team may be trounced even while achieving great feats of finesse and perfection (together or in the figure of a single player).

And here’s a little story that further illustrates this peculiar truth:

I know a man who was laid off after fifteen devoted years of work at a certain large company. For a decade and a half he was consistently recognized for his unremitting commitment to excellence, his deep expertise and enterprising nature, and his ability to inspire others. The company bestowed upon him its much-coveted top honors, and acknowledged him in a fancy award ceremony.

But come tough times this man was plucked from the company’s personnel.

“It’s nothing personal,” his manager said, after treating him to lunch (many, especially lately, have young_superhero_pshrink.JPGheard such words.)

The man’s response? He stuck out his hand.

Across the table, his manager looked skeptical.

“Shake my hand,” said the man, chuckling.

They shook, and the man said, “It’s been a great fifteen years.” And he meant it, for he knew what he’d achieved.

Your application was not successful.

With clear sight devoid of indignation or resentment, I beg to differ. My application was a great achievement.

You may also enjoy:

It Is Natural to Need Help

On Making Mistakes

What Am I Doing With My Life?

Incredibly Shrinking Selves

Redefining Rejection

Why Failure’s a Better Teacher Than Success

In Praise of Salaried Employment

8 Comments to How to Achieve Even While Losing

On Apr 13, 2009, Amy commented:

I’ve greatly enjoyed reading the many essays faithfully delivered to my inbox over the years, and this is one of my favorites, without a doubt. So it is with the utmost respect that I say… I’ve always had a problem with the phrase “I beg to differ.” Why beg? Why not just differ? I realize that the implication of the phrase is that one is differing and not begging, but that in itself begs the question – why do we feel the need to phrase it as “beg[ing] to differ,” at all?

Just one of my many musings.

Thank you, and all of your guest authors/writers/artists, for all of your wonderful, inspiring essays on life, balance, fulfillment, entrepreneurship and the many forms of personal success and achievement.

They are so very much appreciated.

With Sincerity & Warm Wishes,

Amy

On Apr 13, 2009, by Mark commented:

So good to hear from you, Amy. We’re touched by your kindness, and will continue doing our best to keep your valued readership. Cheers. ~Mark

On Apr 13, 2009, Darcy commented:

I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes from the book ‘Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff’. It is simply “Hang on Tightly, Let go Loosely”. It reminds us that it is okay to do our best without fear of disappointment. Your story is a great reinforcement to this belief. I am left wondering; however, if there was a part of you who knew the journey of this particular “excercise” was more important than the prize?

Thanks for sharing.

On Apr 14, 2009, SueC commented:

I am just always wondering, why would someone spend so many months of time working and waiting – without a guarantee of success? Maybe I’m cynical, but while it’s good to do your best, it’s also helpful if it’s fruitful, no?

On Apr 14, 2009, Darcy commented:

Sue- I am just wondering if there is ever a guarantee of success if you are trying something new or stretching yourself? But of course, it is always nice to be fruitful! LOL!

On Apr 14, 2009, Mark commented:

@Darcy –- Thanks for the Small Stuff quote. It harmonizes with a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, mentioned on this blog previously, which has been a guiding light to me for years:

“Be intent on action,
not on the fruits of action;
avoid attraction to the fruits
and attachment to inaction!

Perform actions, firm in discipline,
Relinquishing attachment;
Be impartial to failure and success –
this equanimity is called discipline.”

And I like the way you phrase your question: Was there a part of me “who knew the journey of this particular exercise was more important than the prize?” Answer: Most definitely. And when replied to in the affirmative, your question touches the heart of the writer’s life. The “prize,” commonly defined by society in material terms, is never the point. The Work, the Art, and the personal (yes, even spiritual) process it begets is what matters. Cheers. ~M

@SueC –- Darcy, prompter than I am, asks the very question I was inclined to. Is success (in its common definition of status and material reward) ever really guaranteed in any scenario –- with art-making being among the least likely to remunerate?

I tend to think that the concept of “success” is most salutary when embraced as an infinitely relative one; in other words, success is (and ought to be) defined according to the aspirant’s wholly personal objectives. Of course this is a heck of a challenge for the aspirant (I wrote about this in a Soul Shelter post called “Measures of Success”).

I like to think that this blog, in its 16-month lifetime, has sought faithfully (and in fresh ways, hopefully) to address the question you raise. And to that end, please do stop by for next Monday’s post, which shall find its spark in your very relevant comment. With thanks for the inspiration. ~M

On Apr 15, 2009, Agni Parbon commented:

So much well-written an article touches the core of a reader and in case of me gave me hope and aspirations.

But what if the “not successful” part gives you a note that you didn’t try hard enough? In many cases, it gives me that feeling!

On Apr 16, 2009, by Mark commented:

@ Agni Parbon — Sometimes, in situations like these, it may be true that the striver did not strive hard enough, and such a feeling, despite its attendant deflation, can be extremely serviceable and instructive in spurring one on to greater excellence.

The flipside, of course, is that sometimes the striver succeeded in all aspects but the one forever beyond his/her control: getting through to a far-from-impartial judiciary. Given this latter circumstance, in the end it all comes down to appraising one’s own efforts honestly and trusting oneself — that is, recognizing one’s own accomplishments and trusting that one is not deceiving oneself.

Thanks for your note. More on this subject on Monday April 19. ~M

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