I've always had a hard time with failure. Mostly because when I grew up, I never had to deal with it. The competitive drive in me would push me further and further, because I was winning.
But in the past two weeks, I lost two elections for positions that I was incredibly passionate about. Months of work, months of planning, were thrown to the wind in less than thirty minutes. And I'm not looking for any sympathy when I tell you that I completely broke. I didn't know it was possible to feel so heartbroken by something so inanimate.
I really struggled to cope with these turns of events. When I came into Tech as a freshman, I always just assumed and expected that at some point I would take on a major leadership role and make things happen on campus. Those were also the people I had been surrounding myself with since day 1. Secondly, I have always piled so many commitments onto my plate that I felt at a loss for what to do with all this free time I would now have.
This semester, I have been reading and reflecting on Leadership on the Line for my internship. And after reading Chapters 9 and 10, I realized that my definition of leadership and my understanding of contribution over the past twelve or so years have been seriously misguided. I have definitely fallen into the trap of defining myself as the roles I play, and confusing my sense of self with the positions I have filled. Because of this, when I lost these elections the disappointment of failing was almost unbearable compounded with this incredibly overwhelming identity crisis.
I took these losses as a personal attack and direct insult on my character and abilities as a human being. I have spent years upon years defining myself by the accomplishments I can tick off on a resume, defining happiness as how many leadership roles I am entrusted with, and defining success as how exhausted or overworked I feel. Through my time to reflect over the past week, I have also recognized that there are some things about my attitude and personality that I will never be able to change—I do love being busy, I love to work, I love Georgia Tech, and I want to better the lives of the people around me. These are all qualities that I am not ashamed of. But I have learned that there are other ways to do these things—outside of the formal roles of an organization or the formal delegation of power in a position or the title you can add to your LinkedIn page. Maybe I have been slow to reaching this conclusion (it took almost 21 years), but I think I can finally appreciate that there is more to success than what you write down on paper.
One of the things I have had to do is understand how I find meaning in life. I know that my life is more than the four years I spend at Georgia Tech. I have always been incredibly concerned about and excited for the future—but sometimes I get caught up in what I need to do to get there. This was the pitfall I fell into in thinking I needed these titles in order to reach those future goals. I really loved what the authors of Leadership on the Line had to say about meaning: “Meaning derives from finding ways to love and contribute to worldly enterprise.” I interpret this to mean using your passions and unique skillset to contribute to the world’s work—whatever that may be—for me, I hope it is one day working in the field of global health and making medical technologies and infrastructure available worldwide. But instead of constantly trying to fill the roles I think I am required to and defining myself by the “leadership skills” they taught me, I can work to create my role in the world, my own sense of self. It won’t be the former president of a college organization who joins the Peace Corps or works to better health equality in developing nations—it’ll just be me, Sara, a person.