By Cathy Salit
This installment of “Choose to Grow” features Michael Bungay Stanier. Michael is the founder and senior partner of Box of Crayons, a company that works with organizations to help them do more great work. A Rhodes Scholar who earned both arts and law degrees with highest honors from Australian National University and an MPhil from Oxford, he is a popular speaker at business and coaching conferences, and was named Canadian Coach of the Year in 2006. Follow him @boxofcrayons.
I asked Michael to talk about about a time in his life when he made a major change, and how he went about it. He shared the following story:
One of the fancy parts of my résumé is that I’m a Rhodes Scholar. Lots of people don’t know or care about that of course, but there are plenty that do and they tend to be impressed. They assume I’m a lot smarter / braver / bolder / talented than I am. It opens doors that might otherwise be closed. It also reminds me that I’m here to “fight the world’s fight,” a reminder of the impact I want to have in the world.
What few people know is that I failed in my first attempt to be a Rhodes Scholar.
I’d checked out the process, and been told that you apply, everyone gets a first interview, and then a short-list is created for the final round. No problem. I marshalled my resources, filled out the forms, sent in my entry.
And then a few weeks later I got a letter saying, “no interview for you.”
But… EVERYONE gets a first interview. Just how bad WAS my application? Just how inflated IS my sense of self? Should I slink off and lick my wounds?
Of course I should. And I did. But rather than give up, I decided to wait a couple of years and then apply again. I wasn’t that much different from the young man I’d been 24 months earlier. But I had more focus, more humility, more clarity. This time I got the first interview, and the second, and finally the Rhodes Scholarship itself.
Now, remember that I’ve got all the advantages that privilege delivers. I’m an English-speaking, tall, white man. I’m not fighting societal bias or hair-brained Executive Orders. Failing a Rhodes interview is absolutely a First World problem.
But perhaps there’s something useful here (for me, if not for you) — a reminder that the first No is not always the final No. It might not be rejection, but feedback, blunt feedback, on what needs to be changed a second time. Don’t (necessarily) give up. It might be worth learning your lesson and getting back in the ring.
Thank you, Michael. What a great story with great lessons! In fact, not only do I agree that it is important to get back into the ring after failing, I believe that when we’re faced with failure — and all the other crap that happens in our lives — we can play with it, create with it and celebrate it.
From the mundane (the nasty email you get from a colleague) to the heartbreaking (singer Sam Smith going through a painful romantic breakup) to the history-making (Rosa Parks once again being told NO, you can’t sit in the front of the bus), we all deal with situations and people we find frustrating, disagreeable or worse. This can make us feel demoralized, off-balance, furious or worse. But counterintuitive as it may seem, we can — and, I would argue, we must — create with crap. Not only can it prevent us from doing something disruptive or destructive, it can also inspire us to do something new and different. Like having a surprisingly cordial face-to-face with the e-mailer, turning heartbreak into a multi-Grammy-winning recording, or inspiring the Civil Rights movement.
The key to creating with crap is the idea of the “offer.” In the world of improvisation, an “offer” is anything new that comes your way in a scene — words, actions, emotions, etc. And the cardinal rule of improv is to accept the offer and build with it — say “yes, and…” to it, and use it to create something new. In real life, if we relate to crappy circumstances as offers and not problems, everything changes. If the crap is an offer, then by definition you have to build something with it. And what we think of as crap usually isn’t some run-of-the-mill offer, either — it has built-in challenges, high stakes, unexpected twists. And this can be a gift! In Michael’s story, the gift was the focus, humility, and clarity he gained.
So the next time you have to climb back into the ring, I urge you to look for all the ways you can create with the very thing that knocked you out in the first place.