Several years ago, I was asked to contribute to an anthology, “Letters to a Girl,” in which a variety of writers would pen letters to imaginary, or perhaps real, daughters, nieces, neighboring toddlers on a lesson that experience had taught us. As I mull a new assignment with a similar theme, thought I’d launch my Medium page with the original essay:
I have learned that the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who do everything well and easily and those who have to try hard to succeed. I hope that you will celebrate that you are among the latter.
When I was in my twenties, I worked with an extraordinarily gifted writer at The Hartford Courant. He’d had his pick of colleges, jobs, writing assignments. Still, he wasn’t happy. So unfamiliar with failure was he that when an editor changed a phrase or criticized an idea, he unraveled. Any suggestion that wasn’t praise hit him like an assault. He eventually left newspaper work to write fiction. Again, he met success; he published short stories in the most coveted of publications: the New Yorker. Yet he remained melancholy; not all of his submissions were accepted. When so much had come so smoothly, he retreated at the first obstacle.
If success doesn’t come on the first, second, or even fifth try, you learn how to hurdle rejection. And if you learn how to hurdle rejection, you learn how to have a happy life. Because when you don’t make the A soccer team, or get accepted at Stanford, or are second pick for that plum marketing job in Chicago, you’ll have two choices: plot out Plan B or wallow in self-pity. Disappointments are inevitable and the cheeriest, most centered, most contented people are those who accept sour news, learn from it, and hatch fresh routes to realize dreams.
History is packed with people who have overcome defeat, but we don’t have to look beyond our own family for proof. At 57, our dad was laid off from United Shoe Machinery, the Boston company for which he had worked as an economist for three decades, and despite heroic efforts, could not land a similar post. He weighed his options and decided with our mom to teach in a town on a lake in New Hampshire where our family had vacationed. Leaving the comfortable Boston suburb and the elegant Victorian home with the sweeping lawn was tough, but our parents never looked back. They treasured the mountain views, the late afternoon swims, the slow pace of rural life.
Their flexibility was contagious. Then 16, the only benefit I conceded was to the move was that my new high school had an alpine ski team. I had always wanted to race, but I was a recreational skier, solid, not flashy. I didn’t make the team. Crushed, I thought of my dad and analyzed my options. I could sit at home after school or try some other activity. With the help of a friend, we started the school’s first girl’s cross-country ski team. We weren’t particularly good but we had a lot of fun, acquired a new skill, and decades later, I’m as happy flying through a field of fresh snow on my Nordic skis as I am doing just about anything.
That lesson has endured. For me, as for everyone, disappointments litter life. Colleges rejected me. Employers rejected me. Editors rejected my submissions. Editors still reject my submissions. Yet for each “No,” I have tried to maneuver around the block to find another avenue to “Yes.” There is no avoiding what famed psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross called “windstorms,” life’s inevitable losses. You just have to know something better rests elsewhere and persevere to find it.
Only the best to you,