Recently on the #withaphd chat, we talked about rejection. Consensus? Rejection sucks. It's hard to put yourself out there, get rejected, pick yourself up, and try again.
As hard as it is, though, rejection isn't failure. Even if being rejected feels like failure. Rejection is something that happens to us: "My article was rejected," or "They rejected me for that job." Rejection is an external process; one involving many factors that we often have little control over. Even if rejection feels personal it often really isn't. And because rejection is someone else's action, it's easier to not internalize it.
But failure is something more pernicious. Failure is something that we do or happens because of things we don't do. How often have you heard or said: "I failed the exam," or "I failed to meet the deadline?" It's a lot easier to internalize failure as intrinsic to us: "I'm a failure." We don't like to talk about failure. Failure is too personal. Failure is about us. And that makes it incredibly scary.
Our fear of failure often stems from what we believe failure tells other people about us. Conference presentation was a disaster? "Those other people must think I'm stupid," we think to ourselves, personalizing and internalizing our actions. Once we hang the label stupid around our necks, we're much less likely to act to improve our conference presentations. Rather than taking practical steps to make the next presentation successful, such as making more time to prepare, practicing the presentation, or seeking out coaching and mentoring to develop public speaking skills, we flail in a sea of self-doubt and shame.
The reality is that failure is a part of life; it is inevitable that we'll fail. Failure is a verb not a noun. We might not like practicing failure, but it's a good skill set to develop.
For a long time, I was afraid to fail. I stuck with things like my PhD program that weren't a great fit for me, or that were no longer helpful, or necessary, to do. I worried that stopping meant that I was a failure, that everyone would see I had failed. And the less successful I was, the more frustrated and unhappy I became, the harder I worked at those things to prove that I wasn't a failure. Who was I trying to prove this to? What a huge amount of time and energy I wasted worried about what others thought of me.
My life improved tremendously once I got more comfortable with making mistakes and not making failure personal. It's not always easy, and it doesn't mean that rejection doesn't sting or I don't feel frustrated when I make mistakes or things don't turn out the way I want them to. But I'll trade mistakes and increased self-confidence and clarity for frozen self-doubt any day.