It’s that time of the year. As I scroll through my Instagram feed, I am greeted by filtered pictures of girls hugging each other in cowboy boots and bandanas while flying the American flag. Annually, junior girls from each state convene to attend Volunteer Girls State: a week-long summit on leadership, responsibility, and civic duty. At my all girls school, being selected to attend this week-long event was a big deal, as a large percentage of girls were involved in some sort of leadership position at school and citizenship was always emphasized.
During the second semester of my junior year, I applied for Tennessee Volunteer’s Girls State and ran for my school’s Student Council President. Leadership defined me. Since sixth grade, I had run for a class officer position and had been elected by my classmates to represent my class and to act as a liaison between the students and the administration. I had always enjoyed my responsibilities as an officer. Moreover, I had always seen myself as a leader and imagined that I would be one when I grew up.
So, when I got neither position, I was crushed.
In the first stage of my dejection, I attempted to analyze the situation with a subjective point of view. I am a budding scientist, right? So, shouldn’t I be able to rationalize the situation objectively? Well, in the beginning, I attempted to look at these setbacks as learning opportunities and give myself constructive criticism. Everyone who applied for Girls’ State and who ran for office was well qualified, and these girls were so deserving of this honor. I was honestly happy for the girls who went to Girls’ State and who were elected to represent our class, but at the same time, I was disappointed for myself. Being a leader was a large part of who I was and who I wanted to be.
Suddenly, what started out as an opportunity to introspect and to learn more about myself catalyzed into a panic and drop of self-confidence. Initially, I asked myself, "What did I do wrong?" so that I would not repeat the same mistake. But then, I asked myself, "What is wrong with me?" I looked at these setbacks as a negative reflection of myself and my abilities and skills. To me, I was rejected from both positions because I was not good enough. I convinced myself that I was never supposed to be a leader, and in fact, I had lived my life as an imposter
Three months after receiving a rejection email from our school’s Girls’ State advisor, I found myself sitting in a picturesque coffee shop with a new friend. As she shared her feelings of disappointment during her college process and how she dealt with those setbacks, I finally understood that failure is part of life and that I needed to change my outlook on failing. First, I needed to continue to learn from my failures, which can be done by rationally analyzing the situation. Looking back, the cause of my rejection by Girls’ State was not who I was, but rather how I presented myself to the interviewer. Now, I am more aware of the need to practice before an interview until I feel confident.
Later, I talked to a trusted friend and found that my classmates were not disappointed in my earlier leadership skills or were unhappy about a decision that I had made, but rather they were tired of electing the same girl as an officer. They simply wanted to give someone else a chance. This leads me to the second phase of dealing with failure. After learning from my mistakes, I accepted the fact that I couldn’t control everything. I didn’t fail because there was something intrinsically wrong with me. Rather, the Girls’ State program and my classmates were just not looking for a person like me for the specific task. I just didn’t fit the criteria they were looking for.
After this crushing experience, I have changed the way I view failure. I regard failure as a learning experience. If I am ever extremely disappointed in myself, I remind myself that failure is not always a negative representation of myself. See, if I was the protagonist of a Greek Tragedy, my hubris would be hope – hope that I can do it. I can’t lose that hope; otherwise, I will lose my drive. I realize I must tell myself this; otherwise, I will never have the courage to put myself out there again and again.
Being an elected leader has shaped me into the person I am today. This personal failure has taught me that leadership opportunities will not always come to me. Instead, I must put myself out there and find these opportunities. Also, being a “leader” doesn’t mean you have to be elected or wear a crown of leadership. In fact, some of the strongest leaders I know lead when no one is watching. So, to my audience, I have a request for you. Don’t lead just because you’ve been elected to lead or because someone has asked you to lead. Lead in the classroom, in a club, on the soccer field, on the stage. Don’t be afraid to lead because the world needs more leaders like you.