Ask Polly: I’ve Failed at Everything I Worked to Achieve

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Photo: tomark/iStockphoto/Getty Images

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Dear Polly,

I’m in my third and final year at a prestigious law school. This summer, I went through a recruiting process to secure a job after graduating. I applied to 25 places; I interviewed at eight and got zero job offers. Without a job next year, I can’t become a lawyer. And this is just the most recent wave of rejection. Law school has been an unrelenting series of rejections — I have been rejected from my school’s law clinic, from the editorial board of journals, from summer positions, and so on et cetera.

At this point, I can’t help but internalize these failures. I feel there must be something fundamentally wrong with me as a person. This self-doubt has come to color every aspect of my life. I doubt my very capacity to be human. Like, my ability to carry on basic conversation, to get up in the mornings, to order coffee from my neighborhood café, to look like a clean and polished young woman. I am absolutely paralyzed with self-doubt. I dread seeing family and friends because it means reexplaining, reliving my recent failures, and seeing my precarious future reflected in their concerned faces.

Nearly everyone in my year has amazing jobs lined up, and they are on their way to amazing careers. I feel like a petulant child crying “WHY NOT ME?!” I think (or used to think, and maybe still do) that I am a kind, lovely, funny, intelligent person. Last year, I even finished in the top 10 percent of my year. But, at the same time, this mountain of failures makes me think that was probably a fluke. And that my overactive imagination conjured up that previous vision I had of myself. I remind myself that I scored in the 70th percentile of the standardized test we all took to get into this hallowed institution, and everyone else scored in 90th percentile. Maybe I simply never was good enough.

In trying to diagnose the problem, I have come to scrutinize myself so closely. I know it’s probably not my grades. It’s not my cover letter or résumé, which I edited obsessively, three dozen times, with the help of my super-genius (also lawyer-to-be) boyfriend and my school’s career office. So, it must be me as a human being. I wonder how I come across in interviews. If I am off-putting, or weird, or arrogant, shy, or stupid — and then I wonder how I am in my daily life. If all these things are true of me all the time.

Basically, I vacillate between and sometimes simultaneously occupy two deeply dysfunctional emotional spaces. The first of these being: I am basically worst than Hitler, not very smart, completely deserving of these failures, and doomed to an unfulfilling career. And second: I am better and smarter than everyone else in law school, everyone here is boring anyway, and only smart in a one-dimensional way, so screw law and everyone in it.

Putting aside concerns about my financial security next year, what is most disheartening is that I am seeing my dreams go poof all at once. I pursued this law thing instead of a graduate degree in English literature or film studies, or a career in celebrity-gossip blogging, because I wanted to do work that was meaningful outside of myself. I wanted to use my skills to make a concrete difference in people’s lives. But now, the jobs that are left do not align with this image I had in my head. I am not willing to work for a firm that defends insurance companies just so I can become a lawyer.

So, here I am, feeling both deeply insecure, yet not willing to settle for the crumbs that are left over. I am just so sad that I will never have a job like the ones I so desperately wanted. And I don’t know what to do, Polly. I am trying to think of alternative options, but every hopeful thought is swiftly crushed by my undying self-doubt and self-hatred. I have become obsessed with my hatred for myself — it’s gross and narcissistic.

I am no longer sure I want to finish my degree. I am not sure there are any good options left. Plus, based on my track record, I’m unlikely to successfully realize any of those options. I don’t know how I move forward from this to do something with my life that I can feel good about.

Law School Drop Out

Dear LSDO,

Sooner or later, we all discover that life is not a never-ending victory march. One of the most interesting things you’ll ever see is someone describing a disappointment. The way they describe it says so much about how they feel about themselves. I had times in my 20s and 30s when I’d return to my hometown and have conversations with my sister, whose life had moved in a straight, determined line up to that point, and I would try to brief her on my latest setback: “Yes, I’m still unemployed, but I haven’t run out of the money I’ve saved, so it’s fine!” “Yes, I’m still living with the flinchy man-child, but we’re going to get married soon, trust me!” “Yes, I dumped him finally, but I’m in love with someone else!”

Then I would overexplain myself and theorize endlessly about the victories waiting for me in the future. But soon enough, my triumphant ship would crash onto the rocky shore as I became more and more self-conscious about what an obvious loser I was. But I would KEEP TALKING. I would string together an endless line of self-defeating abstractions: “I think I just need to … figure out … what makes sense at the moment … something I really enjoy but something that … PAYS. I don’t know.” I should’ve just jumped off a cliff or set myself on fire instead.

Here’s what you should say to all your friends and family about your current situation: “I’m in a tough spot, but I’ll figure it out. Shit happens.” The end. No more explaining. That probably sounds a little negative to you, but do you know what people over 40 think when they hear a younger person say “Shit happens”? They don’t think “That’s a cliché!” or “Tell me more about your plan, damn it!” or “You sound like a dreamer!” No, they think, “AH, SHIT DOES INDEED HAPPEN, MY CHILD! YOU ARE SO WISE FOR ONE SO YOUNG!” They think that you’re learning some stuff. They think that this is the point where your life can truly begin: At the moment when you see clearly that SHIT HAPPENS.

Because this is what your parents probably didn’t prepare you for: disappointment and rejection. We of the Western world are exceedingly shitty at getting our offspring ready for bad things. We either tell them that life is all about aiming for elite categories and knowing elite people and being shown all of the secret passageways through the world, and all you have to do is work your ass off, get the gold stars, and keep your Extreme Specialness in mind at all times (or fake that Specialness really well), or we tell them that disaster looms around every corner and the best they can hope for is to fucking survive and eke out some semblance of non-misery. My dad, having figured out a few secret passageways in spite of his working-class upbringing, was all about gaming the system with elite everything, even though he thought it was all horseshit. My mom was all about hard work and expectation management: You are capable of anything under the sun, but keep your sights very low and you’ll never be disappointed. And both of them were all about disaster. Disaster loomed around every corner. I can see now that they were both pretty goddamn anxious all along.

I tell you these things because this is the land you have to explore when your first GIGANTIC disappointment and existential crisis hits. You have to know the ambient noise of your upbringing. The ambient noises of my youth had to do with fear, glory, hard work, insecurity, doom. (If hard work weren’t in the mix there, I probably would’ve become a drunk. Insecurity and glory and fear together are a recipe for a lifelong narcissistic catastrophe.)

The thing you learn as you get older and less attached to the victory march is that disappointments are everywhere and always. You need to admit that you’re aiming for a very rarefied path, and that it takes a special combination of perfect record plus self-possession to get through that doorway and do interesting work that matters. Sometimes it requires doing some shit you don’t want to do for a few years, just so you understand what THAT’S like.

Never, ever, underestimate the value of doing a job you hate, that you’re BAD at, that you think you cannot tolerate for another millisecond. This is like dating an unforgivingly critical dick who hates to fuck: It creates gratitude that will last you a lifetime. In high school, I waited tables and I was the shittiest waitress in all the land. You could see it in every customer’s face (unless they were drunk. Thank God for the drunks!). I once spilled iced tea INTO a woman’s purse and apologized 15 times (very relaxing for her) until she was literally like OKAY YOU’RE SORRY PLEASE LEAVE MY PERSONAL SPACE FOREVER. Being a waitress was like having a heart attack on a stage in front of a murderous mob. It made me grateful for ANY other job under the sun — and it made me a generous tipper.

Finish school. Get your degree. Cast a wider net. Get the best of the not-quite-ideal jobs you can get. Work for a year while you meditate on another plan. Do not quit this prestigious and expensive school while there still IS a way you’d want to use your degree, just because you didn’t instantly get the job you wanted. Eight interviews is not a lot. To get your dream job, you might have to work for a few years in an unrelated field. You might need a clearer, more focused vision of exactly what you have to offer an employer, buttressed by a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the field you’d like to enter.

You have some time to become a more balanced candidate and person. This situation isn’t a verdict on your worthiness as a human. This is simply a chance to grow up and enrich your understanding of where you’re headed. I’m going to guess that you aren’t making the most calm, thoughtful sounds when you talk to people about what you love and believe in. I’m going to guess that you come across as a nervous little A-student/perfectionist who will fall to pieces the second she fucks up. That’s not an unusual way to be when you’re young and don’t have a ton of job experience. That A-student/perfectionist is the person who got you to this point. But to get past this point, you’re going to have to grow up more, and let go a little.

That’s a beautiful thing. That’s an opportunity. If you were at the top of your class, you would not be afforded that kind of opportunity. You’d be hired in spite of your off-putting high-strung perfectionist personality, and then you’d face this same gigantic existential crisis in the first or second year of your career instead.

Young people starting out in their careers very reasonably want to know what success is made of: How can I seem special when I feel worthless inside? How can I find the secret passageway to the creative jobs, the idealistic jobs? But the surest way to succeed over the long haul is by learning what failure is made of. Failing and being rejected are so good for you. Once you accept that this is an important time, a glorious, amazing, promising time, you can lean the fuck into your failure instead of trying to hide it on the outside while eating yourself alive on the inside. This is your moment to learn about vulnerability. This is your moment to learn how to say, out loud, “I don’t know what comes next, but I am going to do my best with what’s in front of me.”

When you learn to live with uncertainty, when you learn to surrender a little, when you learn to see yourself as beautiful and worthy even as your life seems crumpled and wrong, when you own exactly what you are — whatever the fuck you are! — without trying to explain it or sell it or cover it up, you become formidable and effortlessly impressive. Practice saying “I don’t fucking know!” with humility, with humor. Shit happens, that’s all. Shit never stops happening. You do not arrive somewhere someday where no more shit happens. This is how it feels to be an adult, and if you accept that and embrace it, you will see how much happiness flows out of every crisis. If you fear it and get defensive and hardened and walk away instead of facing it head on, you will only learn how to become a perfectionist who quits and hides and is plagued by fear forever.

Don’t do that. Learn to be an imperfect, uncertain person who embraces reality even when it’s scary, who lives out in the open, who recognizes the enormous power of owning up to her own flaws.

This is the skill you need more than any other skill: learning to face yourself, in all of your wild anger, in all of your self-hatred and fear and anxiety, and learning to face an uncertain future. Everyone has to do this over and over again. You are lucky to be here, trust me. This is perfect training for your career: Before you become a helper, you are going to know how it feels to need help. Learn to ask for help. This is an incredible gift, one that will change your whole life if you let it. Take it with gratitude.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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