The other day, a good friend of mine came to me because she was “freaking out.” She had applied for a major international scholarship for graduate school but had not received a callback for the interview process. This was the second year in a row that she had tried; she did not want it to be the second year in a row that she failed.
Unfortunately, I think I provided little if any consolation. The truth, I told her, is that she probably shouldn’t apply to anything if she isn’t prepared to be denied.
My nonchalance doesn’t come from indifference, but from experience. As a sophomore in high school, I tried out for the Honor Corps on my dance squad. I spent hours choreographing and practicing my thirty-second tryout routine, and even though I was terrified to be watched and scrutinized by the judges—not to mention by my whole squad—I really thought I put my whole heart and soul into my performance that day.
But I didn’t make the Honor Corps.
I spent hours crying that night, and I moped for the rest of the week. A friend who did get into the elite group of dancers tried to comfort me, saying that there was always next year. I thought that was easy for her to say. She had tried out on a lark! She hadn’t invested the same amount of time, energy, or hope that I had.
And that was the key. What I learned from her and from those tryouts was that caring is good, because that’s what makes you try your best, but caring too much only sets you up to be disappointed.
A year later, that very same friend urged me to try out again. She helped me choreograph and practice my tryout piece—which was a lot better than the one I had done by myself—and when I auditioned, I simply danced the best I could.
And I made the Honor Corps.
I would like to say that I learned the lesson instantly and irreversibly, but like most things, it would take some time to fully sink in. A couple years later, as a freshman in college, I applied to be a Resident Assistant, and when I didn’t get the job, I was heartbroken. Everyone—and I mean everyone—thought I was going to get it, so the shock probably hit me worse than the disappointment. But everything turned out for the best, because I did a number of things the next year that I would not have been able to do as an RA, including working at the Carnegie Museum of Art and traveling to New York City to see The Gates in Central Park.
Now, I know better than to pin all my hopes on one thing. When I apply to jobs or submit stories for publication, I adopt the motto “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” And because I believe that things happen for a reason, I trust that “the worst” is actually leading me to a better path.
I came to this conclusion the way I come to all things: the hard way. And my friend may have to do the same with this scholarship. But after spending hours helping her prepare—editing essays, doing mock interviews, giving pep talks—I can sincerely say that she deserves this opportunity, and I hope she learns this particular lesson later, rather than now.