Following to Win and Failing Anyway

This is the perfect illustration of the disillusionment of the societally defined path to success. Granted, this lesson comes in the form of a high school-to-college transition story, but it sticks nonetheless.

Flash back to my cozy room, fingers furiously typing my college application essays. White laptop, purple keyboard cover, maple colored desk, folders everywhere, application windows up, word docs open, cursor moving back and forth, editing every few seconds, mind racing to find the perfect story, perfect grammar, a winning paper. I was applying to a whopping two schools. Yes, you read that correctly. Two schools. One “back up” that my counselor and I had determined was a “safety school,” a sure in, and one stretch school that could go either way… the one I really wanted to attend.

Knowing that I would get into my safety school, my application was subconsciously covered in confidence. For my dream school application, I poured my heart and soul into my essay – something about personal growth or overcoming obstacles.

Once I submitted all two of my application packets, I felt confident and excited to receive my acceptance letters. I felt no need to apply to more. At my age then, you could argue laziness, but in this case, you would be wrong. I simply knew I would get in to both of my selected schools.

And then there it was.


Per societal norms, the rules of engagement, success would come only after I did as my peers did. Everyone I knew was applying to at least a handful of schools, some up to 16 different universities (if not more)! I was definitely not about to do that, but I decided that I could put in a couple more applications – and I do mean two more – so that I could at least (almost) fill up one hand to count. After all, “two” sounded a little desolate, and “four” had a slightly better ring to it.

After careful consideration over which schools sounded good and what major I would pick at each, I wrote thoughtfully and worked diligently before I finally sent in my extra applications. Even if I had been confident that I didn’t need these, doubt was a significant motivator. If I didn’t get into my original schools, I had to work hard to get into these, and that I did. Perhaps excitement was lacking, but effort was not.

After the extra $60 or $100 in application fees, and a few months later or whatever the time frame was, letter number one came through as I had predicted – ACCEPTED!

Then, THE letter came. Now, confident as one might be in achieving success, the actual event or defining moment of victory is absolutely no less significant in the least. I remember it vividly.

On a Sacramento road trip for one of our basketball games, we sat in the hotel lobby. Whether we had just won the game, lost it, or were waiting to start the game, I can’t recall. Darkly decorated carpet, round tables, room filled with red shirts to support the team, chatter was loud, excited, happy. Friends were in circles, some were eating, some laughing, others talking.

Suddenly, a call from home. “You got a kind of big packet from USC, and you… get in.” What?!

Fun as he is, I think my dad was trying to break the news like an announcer – clear, concise, matter of fact, before he went on to share the joy and celebrate with me. So perhaps the dreadful pause was to allow space for my reaction, but, when you mix a small phone announcement with a room full of excited chaos, “did” and “didn’t” sound exactly the same.

Cautiously expecting “did,” but too scared to be wrong, I requested serious clarification. “Wait…DID? Or DID NOT?” “Did! Did! You got in!” The biggest smile came over my face, as we jumped together, laughing and screaming at the amazing news!

Somewhere along the lines, I found out that I didn’t get into the extra schools, but I didn’t feel bothered. I was disappointed, sure, but all was well. Now, we could sit and hypothesize that the other two schools were more difficult to get into. But, these schools were on par with my stretch school. Perhaps one was a little more difficult, but generally speaking, the same applause would be given to students of either of them. What’s more, there are certainly countless factors that go into getting into college, so you could also argue it wasn’t my essay that got me in, my grades mattered more over here, this college pulls names out of a hat, and all the other fantasies about the admission process.

In the end, I wound up at USC – the University of Southern California, my dream school. Exactly as I envisioned, exactly where I wanted.

My victory over the “stretch” goal was owed to my passion and desire to get in there. It’s a lesson on how putting effort into something does not mean you’ll get it, but how drive and motivation – or lack thereof – can be total game changers. There I was, applying to more schools, because my peers were doing the same, and the more schools I had, the better my chances of acceptance somewhere. I performed for society; I applied to cover my bases the we way were taught to. But it left me with nothing.

How ironic that something I did to feel more secure, to feel like I was doing the right thing, was the very thing that I failed at. I didn’t need to do that. I didn’t need to prove anything to anyone, and in trying to do so, it backfired anyway.

So, I got what I wanted, and lost what I didn’t. I’d say I came out on top and learned a valuable lesson. Don’t do things just to please people. Do you, and win.

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