11 January 2013

Disappointment

When I was a senior in college, I applied to law school, and I was accepted at several good places. I found, however, that I could not afford to go to any of them. I was already graduating from college with a mountain of debt, and the daunting bills the law schools proposed to send me - even with generous financial aid packages - seemed, well, daunting.

So I selected one of the less-expensive options, deferred my admission for a year, and took a job as a paralegal at a prestigious and well-known Manhattan law firm. My starting salary was just enough to cover a rental apartment in a commercial neighborhood in Queens, which I shared with a college classmate who happened to be working at the same firm as I was. I was paid overtime for the hours I worked over 40 in a week, and that's where I made the money that I socked away for graduate school.

The law firm in question had an attractive program for its paralegals. If you worked for a year after college and were invited back during your summers, and then they hired you as a full-time associate upon your graduation, they reimbursed a sizeable portion of your law school tuition. (If you worked for two years after college and subsequently returned, they paid your entire tuition, but I had only deferred my admission for a year, so this wasn't really an option for me without going through the whole application process again.) The financial incentive to return to the firm was strong. I worked hard and was invited back both summers that I was in law school.

During my third and final year in law school, I applied for a full-time post-graduation job at my firm. I tried to schedule my interview for the job on Thanksgiving weekend, when I would be home in New York, but the firm had reserved that weekend, a convenient and popular one, "only for interviews of candidates from Harvard." (I did not attend Harvard.) Gamely, I flew to New York on a regular weekend, at my expense, for my interview. It went well. I was able to stop in and see all the lawyers I had worked for as a paralegal, and they all wished me well and told me they'd put in a good word for me with the hiring committee.

Imagine my surprise when I got the rejection letter just a week later.

At first, I didn't want to tell anyone. I was absolutely mortified. I had put all my eggs in that one basket, and the basket had dropped, shattering the eggs. Then, as I slowly started to tell my tale to my close friends, my friends urged me to call the firm and find out what had happened. Maybe it was a mistake, or maybe I had done something terribly wrong and not realized it. But I couldn't bring myself to do that. I had been rejected, not by strangers, but by people who knew me. They knew me well. I had spent a year plus two summers of my life working more than 80 hours a week for them.

They didn't want me.

Disappointment, especially when it comes in the form of personal rejection, can be one of the most painful emotions of all. If the lead-up to the disappointment has been substantial, the pain is that much worse. It can be, in fact, paralyzing. I was just insecure enough (and stupid enough) to imagine that I had wasted three years in graduate school, and a mountain of money, only to discover that I was completely undesirable.

Because I was paralyzed with disappointment and shame, the director of career services at my law school made the call to the firm for me, to ask what had happened. A week later, I got another letter, telling me to disregard the first letter and offering me a full-time position after graduation. But I didn't believe it had been a mistake. In the shadow of my disappointment, I was completely convinced that they still didn't want me, but were rather doing me a favor to allow me to save face. I opted to begin my career at a smaller firm that was happy to have me, and I packaged my memories of that first firm into a neat little mental box that I now rarely open.

But there's a flip side to disappointment, and its name is opportunity. I had the opportunity to work with some amazing people at my smaller firm, and to gain some great experience. From there, I went on to a federal appellate clerkship and even better colleagues. And the clerkship opened doors for me that I had never even known existed when I was just a silly law student.

Perhaps most importantly, I learned that disappointment - even the disappointment of the worst sort, the kind that's personal and that all your friends know about and that you're too mortified to discuss - can be overcome. It's like a broken bone that grows back stronger. That lesson has come in handy over the years, as life has dealt me many more disappointments than I ever expected. I have tried to get through them all with a smile, knowing that something better is waiting just down the road.

So if you've been disappointed lately, allow yourself some time to be sad. Then stand up, look around, and try to see the opportunity lurking in the situation. I promise, it's there.

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