Reach for the stars?
We're always told to reach for the stars and seek out our dreams. But what happens when we fail? What happens when your best isn't good enough?
When I was a teenager, I had a dream career.
My teenage diary is filled with hopes and dreams of working in this particular career, and I chose my university courses with it in mind. Those around me were less certain about what they wanted. Whenever we'd talk about it, they would say that maybe they wanted this, maybe they'd want that, maybe they'd wait and see. Not me. I knew exactly what I wanted. I had a dream, and a plan to get there.
After university, I applied twice, and both times was granted an interview.
The first time was a flop. Ah well, I thought. This is where the perseverance kicks in, right? I shook myself off, adjusted my plan, waited a year, and applied a second time.
The second time I poured everything I had into the interview: time, effort, research, focus. Money that I couldn't really spare to buy a 'grown up' suit, a shirt and a pair of smart shoes. I left the interview feeling that it had gone well, and that I had done absolutely everything in my power to succeed. I left feeling that after years and years of working toward this goal, I had nothing more to give.
It was a nervous wait to find out. I got the call on a grey Tuesday. I was great, they said. I interviewed well. I have a lot going for me.
We have a high number of applicants for very few places, they said. I shouldn't feel bad, they said. I was close to getting through. Other applicants were simply better.
In the days and weeks following, I felt like I'd been lied to by all of those people who'd told me that if you try - really try - you can achieve your dreams. Reach for the stars! Climb every mountain! If at first you don't succeed, try try again! Perseverance breeds success! It seems that everywhere you turn, you read stories about people who slept in the back of a car before making it in Hollywood, that submitted their novel to a dozen publishers before it was published, who did an ironman after losing their legs, or who won a Nobel prize after years of hard work. These stories can be hugely motivating for people with a dream, a goal or a specific ambition. As I found out, though, these stories can also make not achieving your dreams a particularly hard pill to swallow. But I reached for the stars! I tried and tried! I did my best!
But sometimes, it still doesn't work. Sometimes your best isn't good enough.
Sometimes there are factors at play that are out of your control, So often, how hard you've tried isn't the only thing that matters, especially in situations where the final decision rests with someone else. You could be a victim of unconscious bias, you could have been given bad advice and gone in the wrong direction, or you might simply not have a certain 'x' factor that another person is looking for. I once knew someone who was in the final two for a role on television - the casting people had decided on a blonde and a brunette, and would make the final decision once they found the actor to play the father, depending on his colouring. The other girl got the role. And, in my case, just because you've spent money you can't spare on a 'grown up' suit, shirt and smart shoes doesn't mean you know how to wear them with the authority and confidence required to convince a group of strangers that you're the perfect candidate. Nowadays, I'm much more rational. I don't expect to get everything I work toward, and I appreciate that failure is much more character building than success. I also know from experience that working toward one specific goal might not work out, but the hard work you put in may open other doors. I know that for every story about someone who slept in the back of their car in Hollywood car parks, there are probably five more people who did the same and didn't make it in the movies, or if they did, could only find work in films of the R18 variety.
I know that my 'grown up' suit and shirt and smart shoes were the outfit that I later wore to another job interview in an area I'd not previously considered, that then launched a different career that has taken me places I have loved. I know that I am happy with how things worked out in the end. I also know that I was fortunate that the dream I chased and did not succeed at had a good fallback option, for I acknowledge that this is so often not the case.
I know that in my life, any successes I've had have been as much about luck and timing as hard work. Our achievements are a table with three legs: luck, talent and grit. Remove one leg and the thing will not stand.
This has got me thinking, though, about how best to promote these messages to my children. Do I tell them to reach for the stars, and risk them experiencing extreme unhappiness or feeling like failures if they fall short? I knew a few people at university in this category, people who had been big fish in small ponds before university grew the pond and shrunk the fish. Most people learn from this, but in others it breeds a sense of failure that causes deep unhappiness and anxiety that ends up holding them back. On the other hand, do I teach my children that sometimes you can work hard at something, and still not achieve your goals? This comes with the risk of them not trying in the first place. I don't like this idea either: after all, some people do win an Oscar after sleeping in the back of their car. Harry Potter was sent to loads of publishers before being published. Some people do achieve great success, against great odds. Other people don't achieve what they set out to do, but find that the hard work opens other doors that can be equally as fulfilling. I don't have the answer here, but am erring toward still encouraging my children to dream big. After all, as the (astronomically flawed) quote goes, if you leap for the moon, even if you miss you'll be among the stars. But, this does require having a fallback option. As they say, those who can't do, teach. If they don't like teaching, then maybe it's best pursuing a dream with more options, or chasing two tracks. I'll try and encourage them to nourish the many diverse aspects of their being, because there are many things a person can do.
I'll then work on building their resilience, so should they not succeed in what they want to, they'll have the skills to be dignified in defeat, to learn, and to move forward. For every quote about dreaming big, I'll also try and slip in that fabulous one by Winston Churchill: "Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm." And, next time I have a setback myself, I hope I'll be able to reign in the sulking and tears so I can lead by example.