“Personal defeat is an unavoidable aspect of life, but surrendering to the “fear of failure,” or atychiphobia, will only enclose us within a narrow, debilitating headspace ruled by anxiety and uncertainty.” (Hustler Staff/Emery Little)
“Personal defeat is an unavoidable aspect of life, but surrendering to the “fear of failure,” or atychiphobia, will only enclose us within a narrow, debilitating headspace ruled by anxiety and uncertainty.” (Hustler Staff/Emery Little)

Generation on the Rise: Overcoming failure and defeat in a volatile professional climate

As soon-to-be college graduates, we are preparing to enter a daunting and unpredictable job market, and a large part of our preparation should include learning to manage the inevitable rejections we all will face at one point or another.

October 12, 2020

(Photo courtesy Nashely Alvarez)

In the five days before receiving my college admissions decision, I ran a total of 35 miles. 

Years before, I had learned to utilize exercise as a method for coping with stress and uncertainty, and as I awaited a decision that I believed to be monumental, I needed an outlet more than ever. Thus, each cold December day over that period, I managed my stress by claiming my favorite treadmill at the gym, popping in my headphones and feeling the belt run out beneath me as I studied every inch of the landscape outside the window.

For the most part, this process has always been effective. Though running is my preferred form of exercise, I enjoy experimenting with other mediums as well. Thanks to my brief career as a high school rower, I’m proud to say I know my way around the weight room, and as I currently battle a knee injury, I’ve enjoyed developing my own HIIT routines and perfecting awkward yoga poses with the distinguished YouTuber Adriene. No matter the mode, exercise plays a major role in my life as both a stress reliever and a means to personal growth.

However, though I didn’t recognize this at the time, running those 35 miles wasn’t just about relieving stress. 

In fact, what truly propelled me to seek the comfort of that treadmill was not an undying love for my current alma mater (sorry, Vandy) but really a deep-seated fear of failure. More than wanting to become a Commodore, I was terrified of the possibility of having to face rejection head-on, of having to pick myself back up and push forward through the rest of the college admissions process. I had faced defeat in the past, of course, but never in the context of a pivotal life event—an event that I, as a fatalistic high school senior, believed to be the greatest determinant of my future success and happiness.

In her 2018 memoir, “Becoming,” Michelle Obama writes, “Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear.” 

In other words, not only is failure itself terrifying, but even the idea of failure is terrifying. In this scenario, running was not merely an outlet for my stress; it was an outlet for my fear.

Though my college admissions story had a happy ending, the same cannot be said for all application processes. Personal defeat is an unavoidable aspect of life, but surrendering to the “fear of failure,” or atychiphobia, will only enclose us within a narrow, debilitating headspace ruled by anxiety and uncertainty. Given the economic and social effects of COVID-19, our generation is especially likely to suffer as we struggle to kickstart our careers and develop strong relationships in unconventional workplaces. Moreover, not only will we stumble as we work to establish our footing in the professional world, but we must now do so amidst the growing prevalence of LinkedIn, a professional networking tool that normalizes and encourages self-promotion. Witnessing the successes of our more fortunate peers will only further intensify our sense of defeat, often leading us to engage in the unhealthy practice of social comparison. These negative thoughts can fester, convincing us that we are less-than and perhaps even undeserving. While keeping ourselves from falling into this cognitive trap is easier said than done, we can begin by striving to conquer our setbacks. Facing failure head-on is the only route to overcoming it.

A natural consequence of failure is an ensuing onslaught of self-doubt, which ultimately interferes with our ability to pursue new opportunities. Thus, in order to move past our defeats, we must reconcile our immediate inhibitions with our overall desire to attain success in life (whatever that might mean for us). One way to overcome a major setback is to engage with a previously unexplored area of interest in the consideration of a new path forward. Although we might be unwilling to do so at first, an uncertain economy calls for increased flexibility and adaptability, and these traits are sure to benefit us in the long run.

One of my personal mantras (I have many) is to stop worrying about things I can’t control. The flip side, of course, is to focus on the things that I can control. Rejection can naturally generate a sense of powerlessness, but we can counteract those feelings by exercising power over the aspects of our lives that lie within our control. In building upon our skills and expanding our knowledge, we can prepare for future opportunities, thereby strengthening our confidence as we work to present ourselves as valuable and qualified candidates. 

In the end, we can’t really hope for much else. However, given all we’ve overcome thus far as a generation, I’m sure we’ll be alright.

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