When I was a freshman in college, I failed a pass-fail final examination. But it wasn’t just any regular exam. I was a musical theater major fresh out of high school and this was a performance exam.
The thrill of prior academic achievement awards was still fresh. I had been accepted at the conservatory of my dreams and was undoubtedly bound for Broadway. Nothing was going to bring me and my perfectionist self down.
And then I failed my board, the final performance given at the culmination of each semester when students are reviewed.
I was certain I had done well, mainly because up to that point, I had never failed anything. So when I failed, the blow was like unlike anything I’d ever experienced and it rattled me to the core.
I consider this experience a defining moment in my life. It shook me hard and woke me up to weaknesses I didn’t even know I had. Failing my board changed and strengthened me in ways I’m still discovering – because I chose to investigate the sources of my proposed “weaknesses,” rather than defend what I thought to be strengths.
Rejection and failure of any sort is a fork in the road: You are presented with two options: you can take the blow or you can grow. Many people understand (theoretically at least) that failure is an opportunity for growth, but few truly grasp how to take full advantage. Owning up to my failure was an empowering thing and it can be the same for others, too.
Here are a few tips for taking the road forward after a less than ideal turn of events:
When you’re told that what you’ve presented or offered isn’t good enough, it’s easy to line up your defenses and equip yourself with all the reasons that you are, in fact, good enough.
That freshman year after spending my entire winter break trying to figure out what went wrong during my board, I decided to go right to the source. I went directly to the head of the department, requested a meeting and asked for feedback. He told my that my exam outcome wasn’t a commentary on my talent – it was a commentary on my lack of self-confidence.
Once again, I had to quiet my defensive outrage and listen – “I’m confident! I’m SO CONFIDENT!”
But he pointed out my poor posture, my shyness in speaking, and my hugging the back wall during my performance. And I listened.
Should you find yourself on a similar quest, calm your defenses and tune in. Consider what the other person is saying. Do your best to pay attention at first without passing judgment.
Take a step back and listen. What is it about your work that he or she didn’t like? What weaknesses were detected?
While understanding that the feedback you’ve received is just an opinion, consider the parts that resonate.
Hearing the truth about something you’re trying to hide or cover up might throw you off balance the most. Do not walk backward: Walk forward into the feedback, even if it stings.
Sort through the rejection. What does the person offering feedback do especially well? What are his or her strengths? Focus on the feedback given for those areas. Draw upon the expertise of others – equally important is learning to discard the advice of those whose counsel you don’t trust.
Initially, I was beyond frustrated that my department head had the gall to tell me I wasn’t confident – didn’t he know I’d starred in every high school musical my school mounted?! I was PLENTY confident.
But then I started considering my attitude since I’d entered the school. I had been accepted to one of the best Musical Theater conservatories, and suddenly, I was a small fish in a big pond. I was intimidated by the levels of talent around me, and I had taken to shrinking myself to avoid being discovered to be as fraudulent as I felt. I wore my insecurities on my sleeve, and once I began to analyze the assessments given to me, I began to see it for myself.
After drawing on feedback of others, sometimes it’s necessary to consider making adjustments.
Based on your analysis, figure out the adjustments you can make to your performance, your company or product. Mull the best ways to go about making these changes. Set goals. Perhaps you lack organizational skills. Start with small changes, maybe keeping a to-do list or a filing system.
I was determined to show the head of our department that I was, in fact, confident. I wasn’t going to quit. That next audition season, I was required to prepare 16 bars of a folk rock song. I prepared “If I Had a Hammer,” by Peter, Paul, and Mary. I started the song by sitting on the floor in front of his adjudicating table – but by the second verse, I got up, rushed the table, slammed my hands down, and sang directly in his face.
Be fully committed to taking the road forward. Own the changes that need to be made and hold yourself accountable to seeing them through. Be grateful that you were given the opportunity to explore potential pitfalls and strengthen yourself or your product. Be appreciative that someone took the time to shake things up.
My department head was clearly amused with the path I’d chosen – after my audition, he cracked a smirk, and I was cast.
Schedule weekly or monthly check-ins in order to hold yourself accountable for accomplishing the needed changes and measure your progress in meeting the goals you’ve set. Are they working for you? Are you keeping up with them?
Failure changed my life in ways I never knew possible. I am so grateful that I fell flat on my face because it forced me to examine pitfalls in my life that I didn’t know existed. It was a harsh wake up call, but it’s one that I will never forget. To this day, I experience the ramifications of that lesson. Failure can be one of the best things that happens to you – if you’re willing to learn from it.
This article originally appeared in Entrepreneur.