Failure is a fact of life. And the more you try to push the boundaries – of your abilities, or your career, or anything else – the higher the probability of failure. There is no inoculation against it. Sooner or later you are going to fall right on your ass. You can’t stop it from happening, but you can control how you respond to it. Here’s my script.
A Real Shot In The Nuts
A few months back, a friend asked if I wanted to be in the running for the Executive Producer role at a pretty prestigious studio, working directly with a very prominent creative director (as in you’ve heard of him/her). It was a massive, super exciting opportunity, so I said shit yeah. I passed the first Skype interview. Then I passed the second (this time with said creative director). A couple weeks later, I was flown out for an all-day, onsite interview with the entire studio, followed by another, after-hours conversation with the creative director in his/her home, and two more hours of interviews the next day. The whole episode played out over a couple of months.
And then the Waiting Started.
I found out a week and a half later that they went with a different candidate. It was an awesome studio, and an awesome game, and an awesome role. It would have propelled my career to an entirely different league. And I knew – not just felt but KNEW, balls to bones – that I was the right person for the job. But someone else got the gig.1 And that, gentle readers, is what producers call a real shot in the nuts.
Now, let’s face it: disappointment is a fact of life. And the bigger the opportunity, the bigger downfall when it doesn’t pan out. And this kind of disappointment – when you want something badly enough to spend hours on phone calls and travel across the country for a a grueling interview schedule, and when you’ve lived with the notion for close to two months – has the potential to be soul crushing.
But it didn’t break me. Not because I’m some paragon of mental toughness (believe me: it fucking hurt), but because I was intentional in how I approached the disappointment.
Step 1: Pre-Embrace The Suck
One of my favorite teachers had a sensible philosophy that he often repeated in class: if you’re truly taking the time to reflect on who you are and what you’re doing, there really shouldn’t be a whole lot of surprises in life. His example (as the former CEO of a biomedical corporation): if you’re making medical equipment, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when someone, at some point, dies using your producer and you get sued.
So, let’s think through the scenario: when you’re in the running for an executive-level role with a creative director who can probably have his/her pick of a lot of candidates, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if you don’t get the nod. And being honest and open to that outcome allowed me to embrace it before it happened. I could try to anticipate the emotions that would come with it: disappointment, a hit to my self-confidence, a hit to my self-worth, anger, sadness. This act was crucially important because it gave me the opportunity to embrace those emotions as just that: emotions. Not reality, not a reflection of who I am. Just…emotions.
This thought exercise was not an inoculation against pain (I will repeat: it fucking hurt). But the emotions I experienced were not a surprise, and I was able to accept them, collectively, as a normal, healthy function of life.
Glass Half-Full, Not Half-Empty
Establishing that expectation prevented my mind from running away into some dark places (places to which a younger version of myself would have readily run). I didn’t wallow in self-pity. I didn’t start question my worth as a person or professional. My career wasn’t suddenly in crisis. I got bad news and I was upset. That’s all.
The exercise also allowed me to take stock of the sheer accomplishment of what had happened. A former co-worker thought highly enough of my abilities that he went to bat for me. The studio was impressed enough with my potential that they flew me out (first class, no less), and allowed me to consume a day of their time with interviews. I withstood all of those interviews, and the accompanying pressure, without cracking or panicking. I was one of two finalists for a crucial position. And they gave me a ludicrously generous swag bag on my way out the door. Taking stock of all of that before I heard back on the role allowed me to come to the proper conclusion: this whole episode was an achievement, irrespective of the outcome. And when I finally got the bad news, I was able to hold on to that silver lining.
Step 2: Embrace The Actual Suck
Inside Out might be my favorite Pixar movie, and not just because Lewis Black is in it. It presents a very clear message: there are no “unhealthy” emotions2. What is unhealthy, as we learned in the film, is suppressing those emotions.
So don’t. Let yourself feel the upset. It’s okay. It won’t be pleasant, but it’s far healthier than trying to avoid it. Treat your emotions with compassion: understand where they are coming from and what they are trying to tell you.
What’s more, give yourself a window of time in which that emotion can have free rein in your head. After I got the news about the EP role (which happened to be a Thursday), I decided I could take all weekend to feel sorry for myself. I could be as much of a sour puss as I wanted. But on Monday, I had to get back to work. This turned out to be more than enough time – just giving myself space to experience the emotion full-on allowed me to get back to a normal state within a couple of days.
Step 3: Pull Off The Band-Aid
My rejection came in the form of a polite, thoughtful, and compassionate email. The proper (and professional) thing to do is to respond with a mature reply. But the idea of doing that ran counter to every emotion coursing through my head – the hurt, the anger, the disappointment.
You know what? I sent the mature response anyway, emotions be damned. I told the studio that I understood the decision, thanked them for the opportunity, and wished them well. And rationally – consciously – I meant every word of it. It meant acting contrary to my emotional state for a minute. But I needed to get it done. I couldn’t process my own emotions properly if there was some final to-do to close out the whole episode. I needed closure, and part of that closure was acknowledging that they had communicated the decision to me.
Resources That Informed And Influenced This Post
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Step 4: Take Some Time For Self-Care
If you take a hit, it’s perfectly reasonable to do something for you. Blow out of town. Do a little retail therapy. Play too many video games. Treat yourself to a nice dinner. Sleep in. Binge watch Netflix. Go play golf. You do you.
Don’t go batshit about it and do something stupid like mortgage your house to fund a trip to Vegas or get an ill-advised tattoo. And don’t write yourself a blank check for irresponsibility – you need to get back to business at some point. But it’s okay to indulge for a minute. I treated myself a copy of The Evil Within 2 and a (tall) glass of wine and went to town.
Step 5: Practice Gratitude For What You Do Have (And Use Salience Bias To Your Advantage)
You know what the rejection didn’t change? How much I love my house. How great Chicago is. The sound of my children’s laughter. How excited my dog gets whenever I come home. The way it feels to hug my wife.
And really, what’s more important? The thing that didn’t come to pass, or all the wonderful things in that I have?
These aren’t just idle platitudes, mind you. In his book Pre-Suasion, psychologist Robert Cialidini states “what is salient is important.” – also known as salience bias. Your brain assumes that what is most salient in your perception is most important. So make the things that make you happy – the things that a truly important to you – top of mind. Think about them. Verbally inumerate them. Spend time with them. Your brain will start to pivot from focusing on the hurt to focusing on the gratitude.3
Personally, I took my kids to LEGOLAND and watched them lose their shit at an entire building full of LEGO dioramas, and a LEGO themed jungle-gym, and giant-ass DUPLO house. Then I bought $100 of LEGO kits (this also may have been a function of Step 4…maybe) and we spent the rest of the day building them.
Step 6: Focus On Other Opportunities That Excite You (And Use Salience Bias To Your Advantage, Part Deux)
Rather than wallow in despair at what I’d lost, I made a conscious effort to think about what I wanted to do next – the opportunities I had at hand to move my career forward myself. Namely, continuing to build my own company. That’s easier said than done, obviously, but, then again, so is being a high profile EP. And, as with gratitude, making my own entrepreneurial endeavors salient in my mind reduced the existential anguish of the rejection.
Sure enough, by Monday I was raring to go.
Step 7: Learn
If you been able to leverage the previous six steps successfully – if you can detach your sense of self-worth from the negative outcome – then you are in a good position for the final step: learning from the failure.
What did I learn from my failure? That in my eagerness to demonstrate my expertise, I made my answers too much about my solutions and not enough about the studio’s pain points. I put too much emphasis on being understood and not enough on understanding. And I learned that, as cool as I think frameworks and constructs are, not everyone else does. So vomiting them out left and right might turn people off instead of communicating how deeply I understand field of production.
This doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, or an incompetent person, or a failure. It means I did my best in situation that was both a) completely foreign to me (all day interviews for an executive position) and b) incredibly high pressure. I threw everything I had at it and came up short not because of my skills, but (at least partially) because of my approach.
It was an expensive lesson to be sure, but I walked away learning something about myself rather than resenting myself.
Further Reading If You Enjoyed This Post
The Only People Who Never Fail Are The Ones Who Never Try Anything
If you’re doing anything that even resembles pursuing your ambition and potential, you’re going to fall flat on your face at some point. It’s innevitable. And that’s okay. So are the painful emotions that come with those failures. The failures and their resultant emotions don’t need to define you, but you do need to be respectful, compassionate, and intentional in how you deal with them.