John Y’s Musings from the Middle: Learning to Fail

We all want our kids to learn how to handle success and to strive to achieve and excel.

But that’s only half the equation. Maybe less. Learning to fail….learning to cope with disappointment, disillusionment and downright depression whenever you try hard for something and coming up short—maybe way short–is indispensable to being a thriving and resilient human being.

Oh,… I’ve had my share of experiences with failure– but one experience in particular that comes to mind is something that happened my sophomore year at Bellarmine College (now Bellarmine University)

Bellarmine had a student essay contest and offered prizes for first, second and third place. I fancied myself a good writer and wanted to give it a shot. It was the first time I’d entered a competition like this and I worked late into the night several nights in a row writing, editing, rewriting and refining my essay. When I finished, I felt I had a mini-masterpiece. I was just sure my little five page essay would get the attention of the judges and stand out enough, I hoped, to somehow place.

The judging took several weeks. I found out which professors were on the judging committee and asked them when the winners would be announced. I was really hoping they’d offer some tidbit about how much they liked my essay, too. One did, Professor Wade Hall.  The other, whose name escapes me, was in the men’s room when I ran into him and awkwardly asked him when he expected the winner’s to be announced. He turned his head and said, “Not long. There were only three entrants so it shouldn’t be much longer.”

“Only three entrants?!” I was “in.” I was guaranteed to “place.” I was ecstatic. Of course, I’d rather be able to say I placed among, say, fifty entrants. But placing among just three was OK with me–as long as it didn’t leak out that there were only three competing.

Another week passed and nothing. I worked in a tutoring center in the afternoons and while there late in the afternoon I called Bellarmine and was told the winners had been posted next to the cafeteria.

I was so eager to see where I had placed I was about to burst with excitement. Maybe I had won. If so, I could put that on my resume and law school application. Maybe I could go to Harvard law school. Or at least Vandy or Georgetown. The possibilities were endless. Heck, I didn’t care if I finished third. At least I placed!

jyb_musingsI called my sister, Sissy, and asked her to drive over to Bellarmine since I was at work and to please check the posting outside the cafeteria that listed the the three winners of the essay contest. She said she would and would call me with the winners as soon as she could.

I waited and waited….pacing excitedly back and forth. I imagined what it would feel like to officially be one of the winners of a “college essay contest.” I had arrived in academia. I wondered if I’d have to give a speech or thank you address. That would be fine. I’d be ready.

The phone rang at the learning center and I grabbed it. It was my sister Sissy.

“John,” she said, “It’s kinda weird. It says they decided to only award two winners and your name isn’t one of them. I guess because there was only three entrants they only awarded two winners. I’m sorry.”

I was devastated. I asked Sissy to go back and check again. And make sure she read the list correctly and was reading the right list. She did and she was.

And so there you have it. One moment, writing my ticket to an elite law school. The next humbled and humiliated that my third place essay was so weak the judges dropped the third place

But I let it sink in and decided it was a good learning experience and  would try to pick my spots better in the future but to keep trying–and to be grateful for the opportunity to compete and even more grateful when I achieved any small level of successes.

The footnote to this story is I ended up an UK law school and loved it. I graduated with honors. And entered an essay contest on criminal law my second year in law school. The paper had to be about 25 pages and contain about 100 footnotes. About 50 second and third year law students entered the contest.

I won.

Actually, I was a co-winner. The auditorium was filled with the entrants when they announced the winner. Professor Welling addressed us and said, “We didn’t have any one essay that really “wowed” us but we had two essays that were really solid so we are splitting the award between two students” and she named me and another student.

OK, it was an unenthusiastic announcement and I had to split the scholarship money. But I got the award. And it’s hanging in my law office today.

But the far more valuable lesson I learned in my essay competition experiences was how to humiliatingly lose, accept it, and learn to bounce back and try harder next time.

Because I had learned the important life lesson that life isn’t about winning. It’s about playing your best and playing honorably  and doing so day after day and being grateful for the opportunity —regardless of the outcome.

And I learned that important life lesson not from being a successful winner but by learning how to be a successful loser. Which is even more important to learn how to do if you want to be a winner in the game of life.


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