Aspiration, Motivation, and How to Deal with Big Losses

A couple of years ago I applied for a job that I really wanted. I knew the job was a stretch, that I wasn't quite qualified, but I gave it a shot and spent a solid month researching the organization and working on the cover letter and application, and I was genuinely happy with my work. I called some people who knew and had worked with the organization and got all the advice I could get. I thought that if I could make it to the interview stage, I would have a decent shot of pulling it off. 

Then I got the e-mail.

"Unfortunately you have not been selected for an interview at this time."

Boom. It wasn't my first big loss, but it stung. It's hard not to question your self-worth when you get rejected. 

Now, I am grateful I didn't get that job. If I did, there is no doubt in my mind that I would not be at Stanford -- and being here is one of the best things that's ever happened to me.

That big loss, though, taught me a great skill that I still use for every loss or failure, big and small, that comes my way.

When it comes to goals, dreams, and ambitions, I categorize things into two piles: aspiration and motivation.

Aspiration. The first pile. The biggest pile. This is everything I want to do, accomplish, and become. The books I want to write, the jobs I want to have, the problems I want to solve. Degrees, fellowships, positions. Changes I want to make in the world. I have a note on my phone that I'm constantly revisiting, called "Opportunities," and it's all stuff in the aspiration pile. I have a written list of aspirations that are specific to my time at Stanford, too. If you’ve ever made a dream board before, that’s what this pile is. This pile should always be growing and changing, and all the stuff in this pile should get you pumped and excited when you think about it.

Motivation. The second pile. This is a smaller pile -- at least while you're young. It's the pile for the losses and mistakes and failures. This is where I place the rejection from that job I really wanted -- I don't aspire to have it anymore, but it still motivates me when I think about it. The motivation pile is for the things that haven’t worked out. The job you didn't get an interview for, the guy who didn’t respond to your DM, the school that rejected you, the test that you failed. By placing them here, you're committing to working even harder.

For the first 23 years or so of my life, I sucked at dealing with failure. Exhibit A: In college, I lost an election for student body president and literally didn't know what to do; instead of letting the loss motivate me to do better, I just kind of sat in it for a few months. I blamed other people. I blamed myself. I made excuses. I felt sorry for myself. It seems like such a small thing now, but at the time it was huge. I didn't know how to deal with external invalidations, so when they came, they stuck.

I'm now at a place where external validations and rejections have a relatively small impact on the way I see myself. I think it's a healthy and productive place to be. It took me awhile, but I finally am able to measure myself against my own potential, instead of on the actions or words of other people or organizations or companies or schools. When I got the rejection e-mail for the job I applied to, I was definitely upset -- but I didn't wallow. I used it as motivation.

It doesn't matter why or how the losses motivate me. Sometimes, I'm motivated to prove the rejector wrong and make them regret -- or at least second guess -- their decision. Sometimes, I understand why I failed, agree with the rejection, and am motivated to get better. Sometimes, I'm motivated to prove a point to myself. 

One thing I've learned is that the key to maximizing the value of these two piles is the speed of transition. It’s super important to quickly move things from the aspiration pile to the motivation pile without getting caught up in self-doubt, sadness, or apathy. When you get a letter of rejection from a college, or you don’t get a call back after an audition, or a guy rejects you, it sucks. It can be devastating. Sometimes it’s literally months or years of work crumbling. Sometimes you need a day or a week to absorb the blow, eat some ice cream with your favorite Netflix show, and feel it. There's nothing wrong with that. 

But the quicker you can get back up and channel your emotions and energies from the loss into motivation, the better.

This shift in mindset is one of the most important mental changes I made over the last few years. I hope it can be useful to you, too.