A Few Failures From My Twenties—And What They Taught Me

failures from twenties
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I’m not gonna lie—I’m a little nervous. My heart is pounding, I feel sick to my stomach, and I’m wondering whether I should just delete this entire post. But no, I’m going to stick with it, because I think it’s that important.

Yes, I’m trusting you with some dark, embarrassing secrets from my past.

These are some seriously cringe-worthy moments, that can still make me feel hurt, disappointed, and/or upset if I think about them too much.

So why am I reliving these past failures? Am I taking some weird masochistic pleasure out of this?

Nope, that’s not it.

I want to share some of the major failures from my twenties so that you can avoid making some of the same mistakes (I hope). But I also want to show you that no matter how devastating they are at the time, with a little bit of perspective, the failures of your twenties can help you grow and learn.

So let’s dive in and get this over with before I lose my nerve.

Failure #1: The JET Program

As soon as I heard about the JET Program, I became convinced that it was the perfect opportunity for me. I was obsessed with the idea of moving to Japan, I loved Japanese people and culture, and I even had some experience tutoring Japanese students in high school.

I made it through the first part of the application without any problems and was invited in for an interview. What did I do to prepare for the actual interview? Honestly, I don’t remember doing anything. (Mistake #1!) I think at that stage, I was just expecting to win the panel over with my sheer passion. (Please don’t ever approach a job interview this way.)

I remember a few high points of the interview—talking about my favorite American holiday, Halloween—and a few low points, like not being able to name the Japanese Prime Minister (oops), but overall I thought I had done pretty well.

Unfortunately, the panel didn’t agree, and I was chosen as an alternate. This meant that I still had a chance to go, but I’d just have to wait it out and see what happened. I spent the summer after graduation on the edge of my seat, waiting for a phone call or an email that ultimately never came. It was both super disappointing and ridiculously anti-climactic. In other words, it was the perfect introduction to the real world.

What this failure taught me: For starters, rejection doesn’t always come in the form of a big, fat “no.” Sometimes rejection sounds like… nothing. It can be kind of frustrating if you’re waiting for a big resolution and nothing ever happens.

But really, the biggest lesson of all was that sometimes things don’t work out the way you’ve planned. You can be convinced that you’re perfect for a job, or you might have the future all lined up in a certain way, but it just doesn’t work out.

The good news is that I didn’t let this first setback prevent me from doing what I wanted to do. I looked for other programs that would help me move to Japan to teach English. It turns out that there were plenty of them, so I was able to achieve my goal after all. I also learned that if you really want something to happen, you shouldn’t let one “no” get in your way.

Failure #2: Publishing Company #1

After I finished grad school, I decided that I wanted to move to Japan, only this time I wanted to try living in Tokyo. I found an amazing internship at a publishing company there. Sure it was unpaid, but that wasn’t a big deal. Otherwise it sounded perfect—I’d spend the summer writing my dissertation and doing the internship and then I could figure out whether I wanted to stay in Japan or do something else.

My initial three-month internship came to an end, but there was good news! They wanted to keep me on as an intern—still unpaid, though. They also couldn’t help with my visa (sorry!) but if I could figure it out, they’d love for me to continue to write, edit, and proofread for them.

This situation continued on for a loooooong time. They finally offered me a paid proofreading position (which was extremely part-time), and eventually a full-time editorial position (with a part-time salary). Because I believed so much in what this company was doing, I was actually going to take the job (along with a teaching gig somewhere else to supplement my income).

A week or two before I was supposed to start, the CEO called me in for a special meeting. It turned out that the company wasn’t doing that well, and she was asking everyone in the company to take a pay cut, or to take on more of a sales role to help bring in more money.

At this stage, I had yet to receive even one paycheck, and had also worked for a year and a half as an unpaid intern, so I believed that it was unfair to ask me to take a pay cut, and I was terrified of working in sales.

I told the CEO that I was going to meet with one of the other employees to see if we could come up with a strategy to add more sales to my role, but I wasn’t comfortable with taking a pay cut at that stage. A few days later, I received an email from her telling me not to bother coming in to work again. She said there was no room at her company for “people with my attitude.”

What this failure taught me: One day soon after I received that email from the CEO, I was walking down the street and looking at all the buildings around me. I was reminded of how small I was compared to this giant city I was living in, and the world at large. Thinking about things in that way helped me to put things into perspective. No matter how huge my problems felt, I was only one tiny person in this huge world, and eventually my current problems would be swept away.

In retrospect (and especially now that there are numbers to prove it), I should have realized that the chances of my unpaid internship leading to a paid position were slim to nil. I kept thinking that if I just stayed on for a few more months, eventually they would see my worth and want to pay me. Sure, there are plenty of stories out there about unpaid interns who are able to eventually land their dream jobs. And those are the stories that are proudly published on company websites and flaunted to the rest of the world. But there are probably even more stories like mine—young, naive people who honestly believed that their hard work would eventually translate to a paid position.

I wouldn’t say that I totally regret the time that I spent with that company—I was able to hone my proofreading skills and my time there also helped me rekindle my interest in writing and decide the direction of my career for the next few years.

But I learned that if a company can take advantage of you, it probably will. And there’s very little incentive for them to change once you’ve let them get away with it.

Failure #3: Publishing company #2

I had learned my lesson at publishing company #1. Unpaid internships are not the way to go. Don’t let anyone take advantage of you. Yada yada yada.

So why did I find myself taking another unpaid internship several years later? Well, I had convinced myself that things would be different this time around.

And they were—at the end of my internship, there happened to be an opening for a paid position and I went through the application process and was offered the job.

Success! Time to break out the champagne, right? Sorry to tell you that no bottles got popped on this particular occasion.

When I reviewed the terms of the contract, let’s just say that I found them less than favorable in the salary department, and I made the decision to try to negotiate.

I decided to calculate the cost of living in the city and make the case for a salary that I considered more reasonable. Hint: This is not a good negotiation technique.

When I presented this information to the publisher, he responded by saying that there was no way that they could pay me that amount, and he was therefore rescinding my offer and going to offer the position to someone else instead.

What this failure taught me: We like to think that we’re in control of our lives, but sometimes your decisions get made for you.

Even though I thought I really wanted that position, at the time, I was also really struggling with the decision of where I wanted to live. Did I want to stay where the internship/job were or return to where I’d been living before? I would lie awake every night fretting over this decision.

Having the job pulled out from under me like that was upsetting, but it also made my decision really easy.

This entire experience taught me that some things in life are under your control, and that’s great. But sometimes external factors will have a strong influence on your decisions, and it’s good to have the flexibility to deal with that.

On a much more strategic note, this experience scared me about negotiating salary so much that I didn’t even attempt to negotiate for several years afterward. But based on conversations that I’ve had with other people, this particular situation was an anomaly. Most employers expect you to negotiate, and they certainly don’t take back an offer once it’s been made.

I’ve also learned that making a case for how much money you want or need is not the way to go about things. Instead, do your research. Find out what other people doing a comparable job in the same location are getting paid. (For example, a software developer won’t get paid the same amount in San Francisco as they will in Montana.) Then you can make the case for getting paid within a certain range because that’s the market rate, rather than what you “deserve” or “need.”

Well, phew. It’s over. I got through it. I hope that you learned a few practical lessons about the importance of prepping for interviews and how to go about negotiating for a salary as well as some more general lessons about keeping things in perspective and understanding that there are certain aspects of your life or job that’ll just be out of your control.

Homework time! Have an interview coming up? Be sure you spend ample time researching the company or organization. If you’re not sure how to do that, we have some great advice in this post.

P.S. Feeling brave? Feel free to share a story about a failure you’ve experienced and what you’ve learned from it in the comments.

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6 Responses to “A Few Failures From My Twenties—And What They Taught Me”

  1. hec

    You and Kellen write awesome blogs. Getting no’s and still pushing shapes us crazy wanderers hehe

    Reply
    • Melissa Suzuno

      Thanks, Hector! It’s true that it’s often the failures and negative experiences that end up shaping us much more strongly than our successes. :)

      Reply

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