This series of articles highlights the defining failures in my life to this point, as well as the invaluable lessons they taught me. I hope they inspire you - not to strive for failure, but to understand that striving for Significance means learning from failures, rather than avoiding them.
I had been making the stressful walk over to my mailbox every day for 3 weeks when The Letter finally arrived.
I stood there in the grass, seemingly in my own universe, completely unaware of the dozens of other students that walked and milled about, heading from class to dining hall and to their dorms.
I stood there in the beautiful sunshine on a glorious April afternoon in New Hampshire, and stared desperately at the white 8.5 x 11” envelope addressed to me with big red letters in the top corner that read:
The envelope was much skinnier than I had hoped.
I was unrealistically optimistic about receiving a thick package from this Ivy League university. I imagined that it would include a promotional brochure as well as information on securing housing and financial aid, and maybe some information on class registration. Oh, and – of course – a congratulatory offer of admission.
It did not include any of those things.
I had heard stories of the thin envelopes, and they never had happy endings. I knew the fate that was sealed in this envelope as soon as I reached in and pulled it out from my mailbox.
We regret to inform you…..
I can’t tell you how the rest of The Letter read. I didn't need to read any further.
To be honest, I can’t even tell you why I so badly wanted to attend Cornell University. Based on my grades and my SAT scores, it was a long-shot, if not a virtual impossibility.
Perhaps it was because it is considered a bit of an “outsider” school in the Ivy League, and I was somewhat of an outsider at my high school. Not in the traditional social sense, but more in the “how the hell did I get here in the first place” sense.
Let me explain.
I was incredibly fortunate to attend a prep school in New England that, among other things, has a 10% admissions rate, a $1.2 billion (yes, billion) endowment, and some of the smartest teenagers from around the world gathered in one place.
As my father had told me before, “Jay, you - like me - are of average intelligence. Your smarts alone will never bring you success. It is your work ethic that will enable you to accomplish meaningful goals.”
In fairness, he was right. And in the long-run, his message was very powerful in helping me achieve future goals.
That didn’t, however, help me feel like an equal with my classmates and dormmates at Exeter. I did later come to understand what I was doing there, and it never had anything to do with my intelligence. It was my character.
But that’s a story for another time.
In that moment, as successful college admissions stories were shared, it seemed, on a minute-to-minute basis, I felt pretty darn shitty. To give you a true sense of my inadequacy, consider the stories of two of my dormmates. One - Chris – was admitted to Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth and Columbia – the only schools to which he applied.
Then there was my good friend Justin, who was awarded the Moorehead Scholarship – arguably the most prestigious undergraduate scholarship in the United States.
I couldn’t even get into ONE Ivy League school.
And it didn’t stop at Cornell.
I went on to receive rejection letters from McGill, Middlebury and Hamilton College before FINALLY being accepted to Queen’s University.
I know what you’re thinking: awwwww, you ONLY got admitted to one of the top Canadian universities – one that many would LOVE to attend. Boo-hoo-hoo.
And you’re right. That’s how I probably should have felt – grateful.
But I didn’t.
I felt shitty.
I remember calling my mom to give her the news – she was the only one I wanted to tell in that moment. I remember her wise words very well. She drove down – 4.5 hours from Montreal – to hang with me the next Saturday after I received The Letter, to help heal the wound.
“Everything happens for a reason, Jay.”
Once again, she was right.
That reason, as it turned out, was falling in love with Canada all over again.
With Queen's being the only university that accepted me, I didn’t have much to think about when choosing which school to attend.
One less stress.
Ah, the silver lining.
I started at Queen’s that fall, and moving back to Canada after two years in the USA gave me a renewed appreciation for our culture – and many sub-cultures – here in the Great White North. It was things I hadn’t noticed before: family values, a genuine and humble shared love for our country and its people, and more than anything else, open-mindedness.
Don’t get me wrong – you won’t find teachers, administrators or students at many schools that are, as a rule, more open-minded than those at Exeter. This was a national, rather than a local sentiment.
I see this openness in everything from voting patterns – with many Canadians voting for more than one political party in their lifetime – to social assistance, to refugee policies.
Most importantly, I saw it first-hand at Queen’s, with my first-year dorm roommate and now long-time friend, Brandon.
Brandon and I were an odd-couple, to say the least. He was the lead singer in a band, I was on the hockey team. He listened to alternative music, I listened to pop. He smoked things that looked like cigarettes (but smelled different) and I generally stuck to alcohol as a social lubricant.
To the outside observer, we couldn’t have been more different.
But we were both open-minded, and we lived in a place that encouraged this practice.
We came not only to accept, but to appreciate our differences. Different strengths, different interests and different desires.
We also learned quite quickly that we had much more in common than would meet the naked eye.
Surprisingly, it only took a matter of days - perhaps even hours - to drill beneath the surface of the ice and find that our worlds actually flowed together like the water running beneath it.
Would I ever have become friends with Brandon had we not roomed together? Very doubtful.
Are we both better off having lived this experience outside of our comfort zone? Absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt.
In the end, Cornell provided me with a forced path to an education much greater than that which I could have learned in any lecture. It was an education in love, diversity and openness.
Of course, this openness exists beyond Canadian borders. It is perhaps the greatest human quality - our curiosity and ability to relate to others.
When we find the strength to follow our authentic curiosities and keep an open mind, rejection letters start to lose their sting. Once we become aware of the benefits that can be gained from a failed attempt, such rejection can motivate us, rather than deflate us. These rejections make us temporarily uncomfortable – a necessary condition in the pursuit of personal development. But after enough of them, these set-backs start to feel more like little nudges, guiding us on our journey to Significance.
They help us gain admission to the most important university: an immersion in our authentic interests, values and strengths. I encourage you to apply – it is the very best school. Here’s how you might begin your application: