Getting past the road block

A good friend texted me yesterday to tell me that they have been awarded a major, and highly competitive, regional fellowship. I am beyond thrilled for my friend who has lived an incredible life, has overcome unimaginable challenges and will do phenomenal things with this opportunity.

But even as I was typing my congratulations, my heart was racing and I was having a hard time breathing. This is the same fellowship I have twice been a finalist for; the same fellowship I have twice been denied. And my joy at my friend’s success had to make space for my ongoing anguish at my own failure.

Failure.

Twice.

I just can’t see it any other way. I can’t articulate it any other way. I can’t get past the immense road block that has twice confirmed what I secretly believe to be true: that I am, at my core, simply a failure. That I am never going to be any bigger than I am right now. That I have reached the final summit of my accomplishments, of my ability, of my worth.

These failures confirm for me that I will never go beyond being a small nonprofit CEO in a small, rural part of the world. When I start to believe that I might have outgrown my current fishbowl, something related to these two failures comes along to remind me that, no indeed, I’ll never exceed this bowl. In fact, who am I to even think that I might be worth more? Why waste time even dreaming of more?

But my concrete belief that I am a failure has to make space for my unshakable belief that I am absolutely worthy of more. It has to make space for the fact that I know that despite this twice-damning judgment from a significant entity, I am only getting bigger and better every day.

I wasn’t going to apply for the fellowship ever again after my 2019 rejection, but I ran into someone who finally, after three failed attempts as a finalist, got a fellowship in 2018. He encouraged me to stop seeing it from an emotional place and keep going until I got it; to view it as a transaction. So I did. And I didn’t make it past the first round this fall. I wasn’t surprised; I wasn’t even disappointed.

Because I have tried and failed multiple times to get this fellowship, I have an acquaintance who works for the Foundation who has started to become a friend of sorts. She wrote to check in on me, which speaks to the kind of person she is.

I responded:

I’ll tell you, because you wrote and because you know me a bit now, I’m truly not even disappointed by this. I desperately want the opportunities that I believe would come with the money from a fellowship, but as with most things in my life, I have also realized that it’s likely I am going to have to go it on my own to get them. For some reason, or many as I have been uncovering in the blogging I have been doing this summer and fall, I simply can’t seem to break in with this Foundation. I am already busy thinking about how I will make my next move, independent of the dangling carrot of a fellowship. I believe I might never really entirely get over the disappointment of this year’s final round rejection; that was absolutely brutal. In fact, as you know, I wasn’t going to apply at all, but a former Fellow said something so profound to me about it this summer that I decided I would try again. 

I wasn’t surprised to see today’s [rejection] email . And I really appreciate you checking in now. You’re a good person and the right person for your job. I appreciate our growing friendship, even if it’s often centered around disappointment. In this case, I can promise you, I’ve already let it go. I don’t mean this to sound boastful or like I’m covering up my real disappointment, but I’m a bright star ascending all on my own; maybe a prize like the fellowship would simply drag me down in ways I can’t really anticipate. Or maybe I’m just not supposed to have one for reasons I’ll never truly understand.

“As with most things in my life, I have also realized that it’s likely I am going to have to go it on my own to get them.”

And that’s the crux of where I am at. My lone wolf, “you are not the boss of me” mindset has served me brilliantly, time and again. It gave me the courage to bring a baby home at barely 23 years old. It empowered me to advocate for my son’s education when I was a young, single mother. It gave me the tenacity to fight like hell for Dr Marry’s sobriety while also trying to maintain my own dignity. It makes me an excellent nonprofit leader.

But all our strengths have a dark side. Perhaps, like a bully, my tough exterior is simply a mask that hides my extreme insecurity at knowing I am not enough…of anything. And perhaps the people making the decisions around the fellowship can sense my self doubt. And as soon as that scent is in the air, it makes it easy to identify and go for the kill.

In the 2019 interview rounds, I knew one of the eight interviewers for the selection process. She lives in Fargo. She knows why I didn’t get the fellowship–the real reasons, not the ones they tell you in the feedback session, which is so excruciatingly vague and unhelpful that I have felt significantly worse after both calls than I did going in, which is saying something.

I see her. We are connected on Facebook. And she knows a piece of my story that I will never know; a missing clue that I feel certain would help me solve this personal mystery. And I wonder what she thinks when she sees me. I wonder what she will think if she reads this. I assume she doesn’t think about this failure of mine at all, but of course I don’t know that.

I can be happy and sad; confident and insecure; proud and ruined; hopeful and distraught. And I can be all of these things at once, but keeping the scales balanced is not easy. And the road block stays permanently in place, which means that in so many ways, I do, too.