How to Achieve Even While Losing
– “Your application was not successful” –
Last 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.
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.
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.
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