Didn’t get what you wanted? Alternatives can be an invitation to find your true calling.

By this time of the year, many final-year students in any programme already know what the next few months or years will hold for them. They may be entering a new course or taking up a job. In most cases, campus placements are over and candidates are busy preparing to begin a new phase in life. In short, it is a time of transitions: from one kind or level of study to another, from one place to another, or from one phase in life to another.

For those of us who have received offers of admission or jobs, there is a sense of anticipation and maybe, achievement. But for every person who gets admitted to a programme or gets offered a job, there are many others who have to deal with not getting in — let’s not call it a “rejection.” It can be quite disappointing (and some might say that’s an understatement) to scroll down that list of names and find that yours is missing. Or to wait, day after day, for an offer letter that isn’t coming.

Do you know how to lose?

There’s very little that school does to prepare us to deal with not getting something that we want. (You may have noticed that I am trying hard to not use the word “failure”.) We’re too busy setting goals and preparing to reach them that we have no time to think about the “what-if-we-don’t-reach-the-goal” scenario. All our efforts and our entire focus is on that specific destination we have set for ourselves (or that someone else has set for us). Often we do not even realise that there is something outside that path or beyond that goal. All through these years of preparation, we are told to retain that focus, to not allow distractions to lead us astray. So if it happens that we dont quite make it to that specific point, we are at a complete loss.

There’s no dearth of literature about winning, about achieving success. But one would be hard put to find a guidebook that tells us how to lose, or how to manage things when we don’t succeed. Yes, we can probably find sympathy and empathy in abundance, with a fair bit of “pull yourself up by your bootlaces” advice thrown in — but that is not particularly fun to listen to when you’ve just fallen down.

Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to allow a little time and space to consider the eventuality of NOT reaching one’s goals. Usually, we leave that thinking for later, after the fact, and end up “settling” for something, often feeling a pressure to fill the gap with anything at all. Instead, if we had thought about the possibility of not reaching that single goal, and considered a few alternatives right from the beginning, we might not feel as cheated, as disappointed, as disheartened.

Not compromises, but choices

So one way to prepare is to have a few alternatives lined up. Don’t think of these as “fall-back” options or compromises but as choices that you can actively make. The world is a big place, and there are many ways to learn and make a living. Most of us do not allow ourselves the space and time to really explore a variety of career or educational options. We go by what we are familiar with or what our parents (or teachers) have told us. Of course if you have a singular passion that drives what you do, there’s no looking at alternatives, but not all of us have that one thing we want to do. These alternatives can be closely allied areas or they can be completely divergent. For instance, if you are keen on health care but do not make it into medical school, you could look at a variety of paramedical and health care service (management, public health, etc) courses. I know one young person who after four years of engineering school and waiting for an appointment order that never came, decided she would explore something else, and found her calling — in counselling.

Another way to manage disappointment is to look at it as an opportunity to reconsider your plans. It’s a forced stop to what is probably a high-speed race through school, college and tutorials to competitive examination and maybe, work. For the first time, you will have the space to think widely and deeply about what you could do and what will make you happy. As you get older, you will find that there are very few points in life when you have the chance to pause and rethink your path. And it’s even rarer to find moments when you can actually change that path without too much trouble. Not getting to one goal might simply mean that there are other goal posts out there you havent seen yet.

The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and is the editor of Teacher Plus magazine. Email: usharaman@gmail.com