Updated: May 9, 2021
We all make mistakes, have setbacks, or simply aren't good enough sometimes. It’s not fun but you can’t avoid it either... unless you avoid doing anything at all (which is often not an option).
So, in order to bounce back from the inevitable setbacks you will endure in life, it's important to develop self-awareness and a strong, confident way to handle them, instead of letting them lead to a vicious cycle of self-deprecation and negativity. In this blog post, I'll talk about some of my failures and what each of them taught me.
Let's start with the first time I truly felt that I'd failed at something...
Not getting a place at medical school - rejection is redirection
When I received 4 rejections from my chosen medical schools, I learned a lot from the experience. It was the first time I had to reflect on myself and my values.
I took the rejections in my stride. Surprisingly, I didn't even cry. The worst feeling was probably the overwhelming sense of disappointment, which I realised was stemming from the fact that I thought everyone else was also disappointed in me - my teachers, my parents, my peers... But once I got over that, I asked myself a few questions:
What’s one thing I can learn from this?
How can I adjust my methods to avoid making the same mistake and likely do better next time?
What do I want to do next?
Throughout school, I'd been a decent student which lulled me into a false sense of security. I was told by pretty much everyone around me that if I had the grades, I'd be fine. Anyone who's been through the medical school process knows that this is far from the truth. Once I was hit with 4 rejections, I was forced to reflect on how 'good' of a student I actually was. I had to be critical about myself - my grades may have been one box checked but I had to think about my UCAT / BMAT score, my personal statement, and my interview performance - and I made peace with the fact that I simply was not ticking these boxes as well as the other candidates during that cycle.
I considered if medicine was truly what I wanted to do but honestly, this didn't take much thought. I decided on taking a gap year pretty soon after I received all 4 rejections and started planning what I wanted to do during that year.
I identified my weak point: interview performance - so I honed in on this for next time. I lacked adequate reflection on my work experiences which meant I also lacked confidence in the fact that I was a good candidate for medicine and the interviewers clearly picked up on this. I also spent a considerable amount of time researching the medical school application process inside and out. How was I supposed to navigate the process if I wasn't fully aware of all the hurdles I had to overcome? I mapped out my year accordingly and made sure to properly practice for interviews this time around.
I learned that rejection is redirection. Once you become comfortable with the idea of rejection, you are pretty much unstoppable. Rejections are rarely ever personal - but they should prompt introspection. Being self-aware and self-critical (to a healthy extent) will greatly improve your chances of success next time because you are likely to be confident and sure of your own skills, qualities, and attributes.
Getting a job as a HCA - if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again!
I had a look at all of the applications I made for HCA jobs before I finally got an invite to interview and it came to 24! My first strategy involved sending the same application to multiple NHS trusts. When I started receiving rejection after rejection, I realised a change in tactics was needed.
I started editing my CV to suit the particular wards I was applying to. I only had a couple of months of experience working at a frozen yogurt store but I used what I had to my advantage. I focused on the fact that I had good customer service skills, had worked well under pressure, had worked as part of a team... I also started to mention the fact that I wished to pursue a medical career which is why I was pursuing the HCA role.
A few more rejections came through... I was confused. I made even more changes and sent more applications out. A couple of weeks later, I received an invite to interview for an elderly medicine ward. It was the only one I received and I haven't looked back.
I discovered what being resilient truly felt like. When you want something badly enough, you simply have to keep trying. I also learned how to extract the experience and skills that I currently had to suit various job roles. No matter how irrelevant or short-term your prior experience may be, if you can pick out the transferable skills you demonstrated and articulate these in an impressive way - you can apply for a wide variety of entry-level jobs.
Failing my driving test twice - don't fear failure
I took lots of lessons and felt very prepared for my driving test but nerves got the better of me on the day. I failed my first driving test because I panicked. I was so devastated because I felt like all my hard work had gone to waste. The second time round... I panicked again. Same examiner for both tests too. I thought I was doomed. I wanted to pass so badly before I started university.
This ordeal taught me a lot about my own fear of failing. I was clearly putting too much pressure on myself. Panicking is defined as 'a sudden sensation of fear which can dominate or prevent reason and logic'. My biggest fear was failing my driving test. Because I had this fear, the minute I was sat at the steering wheel I was setting myself up for failure without even knowing it. The fear was clouding my judgment and distracting me which, in turn, was making me an unsafe driver.
Before my third driving test, I told myself that my past 2 failures did not necessarily mean my hard work was all a waste. It just meant that I didn't perform as well as I needed to when the time came. I promised myself that during the final test, I would not panic or get stressed because there was no need. I just needed to show the examiner I was a safe driver, which I knew I was! I needed to focus on passing the exam instead of wasting time being scared about failing it. This pursuit of success has fuelled a lot of my achievements to this day. I am not scared of failing - instead, I welcome it. If I was to fear failure, I would never have the confidence to apply for some of the opportunities I have now. Learning how to manage my stress and anxiety by shifting my perspective stopped my efforts from going to 'waste' when I needed them most.
I like to remind myself that I will never be 100% 'right' or 'perfect', even though we're encouraged to spend most of our lives chasing that. I've accepted that I will be wrong most of the time and will be susceptible to making mistakes for as long as I live (since I'm human). Self-improvement is about being a little less wrong every day. * I try to live my life with a 'Reality-Growth Mindset' (a theory by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck linked at the bottom of this blog if interested in reading further)
Essay competitions - process > result
Funnily enough, the first 2 essay competitions I entered were the only ones I ever won. I have consistently been unsuccessful ever since! I've entered 7 competitions in total - purely because I got so excited from my first 2 wins, that I wrote some more essays to see if I could win some more. I felt that I needed to prove to myself that my 2 wins weren't just flukes... and when my subsequent entries were unsuccessful, my imposter syndrome took over. I thought that maybe I wasn't actually that talented at writing. Maybe nobody entered and I just happened to be the best out of a bad bunch. In hindsight, I was overly self-critical and doubted my abilities too much which affected the following essays I was submitting.
Once I'd announced the publication of one of my essays in the summer, I became more confident in my writing ability. After all, the prize for that competition was some cash and a publication - but the latter was never guaranteed. I did the work to make sure my essay got published and because I spent a good 2-3 months basically rewriting the whole thing, I thought to myself - I'm good at this and should aim to be even better. I stopped caring about whether the 2 competitions I had won were flukes or not and stopped doubting myself. I submitted an essay for a 5th competition during the summer and even though I didn't win, I remember getting commended and the feedback encouraged me to submit it to a journal at some point. This gave me the small confidence boost I needed, and I ended up producing better work and falling in love with the process instead of worrying about the result.
The next few competitions I entered were all unsuccessful but I didn't feel bad about a single one because I used them as a way to practice and get feedback. What I learned from this whole process was that sometimes you can peak early and plateau - and that's ok! The metric you measure yourself by should not be by how many things you achieve / win but by what you gained during the process. What did you become better at? What did you discover that you didn't before?
From doing all of these essays, I figured out that I was good at writing and enjoyed it. My writing has become even better than it once was and I've also learned so many interesting things about a range of medical topics. It even helped me with university and navigating my future career. I am now very comfortable with writing essays and my highest marks always come from them AND it's helped me realise I want to pursue an academic clinical career.
The truth about publications - feedback is the breakfast of champions.
At the time of writing, I would have authored 2 publications. However, as mentioned in my blog post about the publishing process, journal rejections are inevitable. My work has never been accepted first time by a journal. It's either needed major revision (rewriting most of your work based on reviewer comments) OR been rejected outright because it doesn't suit the scope of the journal. This, accompanied by the fact that you've probably spent over 12 months on your submission, can be very frustrating! But as my annoying self would say, that's part of the process! And probably the most satisfying one to overcome. I have also never published a piece of work all by myself. Without feedback from my colleagues and supervisors, I would not be able to produce the high-quality work that is published in journals.
Feedback is probably one of the most underestimated components of success. For every setback that I have encountered, I have tried to seek feedback. Unfortunately, more often than not, you won't receive any. But when you do, do not take it lightly. I live for feedback in all its glory. I want to know if I'm producing content of value. I want to know if my work is of a high standard. I want to know if I treated that patient well or if my examination skills need more work and I want to be told in as much detail as possible - no matter how awkward or harsh it may be.
Unlike rejection, feedback IS personal. This is probably why many of us shy away from it or become really hurt if something is said that we don't like to hear about ourselves. Feelings aside, feedback is the key to improvement... and constant improvement will ultimately lead to ‘success' (whatever that may look like for you). When feedback is given (hopefully in a constructive, honest and detailed way), ACT on it. Write an action plan, think about some of the key points they told you and TRY AGAIN with that feedback incorporated. When it isn't given, always ASK!
Applying to Cambridge - no message is a message
To apply for my Master's at Cambridge University, I had to find a supervisor. Cambridge supervisors are world-class academics in a specific subject area. As someone who's never conducted a research project on her own (but written a few essays on different topics as mentioned above), I sent a total of 13 emails to supervisors whose research I was interested in. This included a bit about myself and why I was interested in applying to be a Master's student working under them.
Out of all of those emails, only 2 academics got back to me.
To this day, I still haven't received responses from any of them but I learned to come to terms with the fact that no message is a message (and this has helped me in lots of areas of my life). Being told no is one thing, but when you've been ghosted... ouch! This especially stung after I had a short informal Zoom call with the first supervisor who got back to me. I never heard back from her again... I reflected a lot on what went wrong in that Zoom call and my imposter syndrome re-surfaced. At this point, I'd accepted I wasn't good enough for Cambridge and it was laughable that I'd even tried. I spent ages going over why she wasn't interested in my head - was it because I lacked lab experience in her topic area? Was I too smiley? Was I too chatty? But I still sent her my research proposal and asked for feedback... However, a couple of weeks later, I came to the solemn realisation that it was a dead-end. I was never going to get a reply. And that translated to: she didn't want to work with me.
I took a break from writing emails because I only wanted to work under the supervisors I'd already reached out to. I'd accepted I wasn't going to get into Cambridge but it was worth a short anyway. A whole month later, my second response arrived. And my current supervisor is the best I could have asked for!
Similar to my HCA experience, I learnt that I had to play to my strengths and continuously put myself out there until someone responded. Ali Abdaal explains really nicely in his video: What makes people successful? how taking more actions, doing more things, and putting more stuff out into the world increases your 'surface area' to opportunities (and ultimately, 'success').
Helpful things you can do to overcome failure
A conversation with someone close to you can be very helpful.
When something has gone wrong and I’m feeling disappointed, talking to one of my close friends is a massive help! It can help you get the emotions out of your system and rationally talk through what could have led to that failure. Were you too nervous? Were you unprepared? Did you REALLY want what you were applying for in the first place? What do you want to do next?
This can be cathartic, help you understand where your strengths and weaknesses may be, and help map out your next steps.
Learn from those who’ve gone where you want to go.
Read about how the people doing what you want to do have handled setbacks and low points before or during their success in books, on websites, or online forums. I personally find this quite inspiring which is why I try to put out similar content. It constantly reminds me that nobody is above failure. I also get inspiration from listening to a podcast or audiobook if I don't feel up to reading.
Take action as soon as possible.
In order to fully overcome a failure, you have to take action. Once you have allowed yourself to feel the pain and disappointment that comes with a setback, draw up a plan. This can be a small list of your next actionable steps. Where do I go from here? What do I want now? What are my strengths and how can I play to them? What are my weaknesses and how can I improve them? What does success look like to you? (And manifest that for next time)!
Ask yourself: Do I want to try again?
Sometimes, you may not feel like trying again. Once you've gone through a process and failed, sometimes that's taught you what it was supposed to: that you don't really want this. This happened to me recently in an application I made for a health data science internship with the Oxford Big Data Institute. I had no prior experience, no clear interest in health data science, and although they got on with me really well at the interview, they knew I wouldn't be able to handle the workload. I knew I didn't meet the desirable conditions for the role, but I applied anyway (with lots of encouragement from one of my good friends in tech). The process taught me that I didn't really have an interest in data science and would not enjoy analysing data for 6 weeks over the summer, no matter how cool it sounded. Aside from that, I also learnt a lot from the process - from what the screening questions are like up until the interview! Now I wouldn't be as scared to apply again in the future if I ever change my mind.
You will never be perfect
Trying to perfect something can become a way to procrastinate because you fear failing again or because it is hard to start moving on after a rough and disorienting setback. There is no such thing as a perfect applicant or a perfect CV or a perfect interview. Play to your strengths and use the people around you to increase the quality of your application which will, in turn, increase your chances of being successful. Forget about chasing perfection and putting pressure on the end-goal. Sure, it would be amazing if you got that job or won that essay competition. But instead, focus on what you want to gain from the PROCESS of applying and how this will affect you going forward. Therefore, even if you're unsuccessful... you still would have learned something and won't feel like everything has been a 'waste'.
I’ve failed more times than I can even include in this blog post but these were some of the ones that stood out to me. If you struggle with rejection and failure, see my favourite perspective-shifting recommendations below.
Currently reading: The subtle art of not giving a f*ck (Mark Manson)
Next read: The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying - A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing (Bronnie Ware)
P.S. I love Ted Talks so feel free to recommend some to me too!