Failures, setbacks, and disappointments: responding, reevaluating, and reflecting

The first 3 are all things we’ve experienced…and I’m sure we’ve all heard that it’s how you respond to a failure that defines you. Although annoyingly overstated, it’s true. I’m experiencing that now more than ever, after a second setback that feels like a life ruiner.

Yes, I am going to tell you what happened. We all know the first one is that I didn’t get into graduate school — I was definitely upset, but also relieved, in a sense. I had an initial panic of failing, but then I remembered that I knew of people who had gone through the same thing, and they made it through alright.

Then, I had only failed a test of not being impressive enough on paper/picking the wrong schools to try. But here, I failed a test. I failed the first out of two sections of my strength and conditioning exam. But…only by one point. ONE! POINT!!! I don’t say this in a desperate attempt to make myself look better, but to remind myself that it could be a lot worse. I passed the other section, which, interestingly enough, was the section I was more nervous about — so I suppose that does mean I studied harder. It was exercise science, which I not only hated in school, but I also was not that great at. It was studying for this exam that allowed me to love it again. The section I didn’t pass was program design/exercise technique, which I will admit to not studying as hard, because I felt like I knew it better.

I was initially really upset because now I can’t use this on my resume when applying to graduate schools — I can’t retake the section until 90 days, so the end of November. I am hoping to send most of my stuff in before that, as my top school is due December 15. However, in my personal statement I can say when I plan to take it. I can do a lot of things to show that this was something I studied hard for, and found passion for. I honestly hated school, but it wasn’t until learning this stuff on my own that I discovered how much I like learning new things! It has honestly been life-changing. So, if I stop looking at this as a resume-builder and see it as a life-changing, incredible opportunity that I’ve opened myself up to, I’m okay. Another thing people seem to say is that it’s about the experience, not always the end result. Hard to hear, but even harder to really truly believe it yourself.

So, there are a lot of things to be thankful for: I only have to retake one section, and I did really well on the other section. Woohoo! I have time to study again. I still have a home, my parents are still helping me out by sending me just a little bit of extra money for gas/groceries, as I’m making just barely enough to get by. I didn’t go through a hurricane and lose everything. I still have my internship, and I will still have great experiences and recommendation letters to take with me. What I’m thankful for, in a sense, is that this “failure” was self-incurred. Yes, it looks bad to people I’m trying to impress, but this means I can only blame myself, and I don’t have anyone to be angry at. It’s really pointless to hold grudges against yourself, and although it may be easier, it’s simply not a good idea.

I also like to think of things that contributed to my failure, not to dwell and be sad over, but to reflect remember for next time. First of all, this was my most stressful week ever — I slept very little, was working 2 shifts a day in hot weather, and it was my first time(s) ever being on my own as an athletic trainer. I am also having the craziest muscle tension I’ve had in ages in my upper back/neck, so it’s been giving me headaches. Not the best time to take it. I was burnt out from studying previously/having to postpone this for a concussion, so I was upset. Finally, I just didn’t study as hard as I could have. I only missed one question. But you could say that about missing two questions, or three, or four. Either way, I didn’t make the cut and that’s just how it is. This time around, I could have rescheduled my exam because the extra shifts couldn’t have been moved. In my impatience, however, to be done — I rushed myself.

Of course I’m upset. But I’m trying very hard to remember the RAIN acronym I talked about recently. The most important things are to acknowledge that it happened, figure out why it happened but also be kind to yourself during it — I’m a culprit of being hard on myself and telling myself I suck. While that could be true sometimes, you also have to be confident in yourself, your skills, etc., and I do have confidence that this is something I’m meant to do. You have to be realistic. The final thing is not letting the failure define you. So often we are put ourselves down with a small negative thought, but that can instantly explode into thinking that you are a horrible, sad person who has failed and will fail at everything. But how often is that true? In reality, almost never.

Part of me is now realizing that I initially may have set out on this effort to prove that I wasn’t a failure because of grad school, to prove other people wrong. My mindset changed this summer as I began to learn and enjoy the knowledge I was gaining. Thankfully my mindset changed or I’d be even more upset now. Right now I’m still processing/dealing with this, but even writing these things out is helping me calm down.

I just sat there in the car thinking to myself, “how on earth am I going to recover from this?? My life is so over! Not one single grad school will want me now!” I didn’t want to try and move on, I just thought it’d be easier to wallow in self-pity. Which, it often is, but it’s much less fun/definitely doesn’t help my chances of graduate school if I put myself down. I believe in good things — I believe that there are people out there who won’t use this failure to define me. If there are, well, that’s just how the world works. All I can do is work with what I have. I made a post recently about how much harder it is for me to hope for/expect success because of the chance of failure (I’m the type of person who has motive to avoid failure) — and this rings very true. Having a positive attitude after this setback is really hard, but I’ve got to say it feels much better.

So this definitely has been a hell of a week, but I got a lot out of it — I learned that I can handle physical pain a lot better now, and I got to work ON MY OWN for the first time. I got athletic training experience in a setting I really could see myself working in, and I also found a cool coffee shop I really like for future studying (and they have different baked goods everyday…help).

Yes, we make mistakes, but we must learn from them! It’s not enough to say it, you’ve got to do it. My main plan of action is of course to wait those dreadful 90 days until I can take the exam again, but I can help that by being positive towards myself and continuing to learn other stuff. Finally, I must be honest. While most schools probably won’t interview me unless they really like me, meaning they aren’t worried and can look past this, that means I probably won’t get to really explain what happened. That’s annoying, but again — I just have to believe there are good people out there. However, if I do get an interview, I will get to explain what happened, and I know that honesty is the best policy. One school I interviewed with last year said they liked my honesty. They didn’t take me probably because my honesty was about one class I didn’t do well in, BUT I took that to heart and will keep that as a part of me forever.

Looking at this as a learning experience makes me oddly excited (I know, I’m weird). But this weekend I’m just going to take a little break, and next week start into grad school stuff. I’m going to try and visit a nearby school, get basic info on another school, and then decide what to do about the school that takes applications mostly through word of mouth, like there’s no online application kinda thing. I’ll work on personal statements, a work sample that I have to do, etc. I’m ready to get back into it and approach any failures, setbacks and disappointments with a positive attitude.

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Jen Xu

Athletic trainer, PhD student, coffee lover. I write about fitness, mental health, being Asian-American, and personal growth.