Dealing with Disappointment


Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Someone I coach recently heard that she had not been accepted into their first choice college. This is the advice I gave them about dealing with disappointment.

Do you know who Lisa Loeb is?

I wanted to go to Brown University. I had a friend from Chicago who was already there. In hindsight, I can no longer remember why it was my first choice. That was 37 years ago, and I did not keep good notes about my thought process at the time.

Years later, I discovered that the singer songwriter Lisa Loeb went to Brown, and we would have been there at the same time, if I had been admitted. In my mind, I was absolutely convinced that if I had gone to Brown, we would have met and fallen in love only to have her break my heart. Then I would spend the rest of my life avoiding her music.

If you are not familiar with Ms. Loeb, she became famous for the song “Stay.” In some alternative universe, that song could have been about me. Though more likely me singing that to her…if I could sing…anyway…I dodged a bullet by not getting into Brown. I just did not realize it for 30 years. By not getting in, I avoided having my heart broken by a major recording star.

Paths Taken and Not Taken

I was accepted to Bowdoin in Maine and Pomona in California. My sister and her family lived by Pomona, and it would have been great…near family I liked. But I did the math and figured the difference in tuition between there and the University of Michigan was a lot to help pay for grad school, so I went with my “safety” school, the in-state flagship.

As a result of that choice, I met my first wife, who put me onto a career path in computers that led to my current career in higher education. In the end, I would never have met my coachee if I had gotten into Brown, and this story would have never been written.

We do not know what could have been or what will be.

How to Have a Bad Time in College

The summer before college, I met someone. I did not expect to fall for her. She had 1 year left of high school. I fell hard. When she came to Michigan to celebrate my birthday (three weeks after dropping me off there), I could tell something was not right. Eventually it came out that she had fallen for someone else…that very day before driving down.

I was crushed. It started a bad time for me. When working in the cafeteria over spring break, I was exposed to some cleaning chemicals. The last night of break, I was not feeling right and a friend took me to the ER. I was there for a week. I went from an A- in Latin to a D in my second semester. I was sick for a year, and my GPA for that year is a full point lower than the other two years. (I graduated early.) I had a form of hepatitis that meant fatigue, pain, and depression.

The silver lining of my illness was that I could not drink alcohol. I tried a couple of times with unpleasant results. In hindsight, I might have fallen into the family tradition of abusing alcohol to blunt the pain. Finally after a year they did a biopsy on my liver and I was healing. Yeah.

The worst was yet to come, though. Spring break my sophomore year, I had gone back to my parent’s just for a couple of days. I was back on campus when the phone call from home came that my brother had been killed by a drunk driver. That introduced me to a new low and deeper depression.

My girlfriend at the time drove me home as I was in no shape to drive. In the late 1980s, people were not as accepting of interracial couples as they are now…so that was interesting.

If I had not gone to Michigan, I like to believe I would not have fallen for someone that summer. I would not have been working in the cafeteria during spring break, and would not have gotten so sick. My brother was going to die. That was about his mistakes and bad luck. Nothing I could have done would have changed that. Maybe being in California would have been a buffer. Certainly being my sister would have helped. Instead I was alone and not in a good place.

A couple of months after that I met my first wife, and again, everything that has happened since has happened because of that. I have had a great career thanks to her, and even though the marriage did not last, it led to my current wife of twenty-two years and our ten children. None of that would have happened if I had been admitted to Brown.

Dealing with Disappointment

Often in life we have disappointments. We do not get into the college we wanted. We do not get the job that we wanted. I have lost track of the jobs I have not gotten. The relationship we wanted does not want us. We will never know what our life might have been if we had gotten what we wanted at the time.

My favorite part of Herman Hesse’s biography of Buddha, Siddhartha, is a chapter where Buddha sees what his life could have been if he had pursued another path other than to be the Buddha. Most of us do not have a way to know what might have been. Maybe things would have been better or maybe worse or maybe a wash.

Buddhism teaches that the source of suffering is desire. If we did not desire anything, then we would never be disappointed. As the Stoics might say, “suck it up, buttercup.”

I respectfully disagree. Desire is linked to motivation. It is desire that moves us to accomplish things. Ignoring the pain when things don’t work out can be helpful, but even more effective is recognizing that when one door does not open for us, we are yet to know what other experiences lie ahead of us. The important thing is to be open to the opportunities and to learn from the experience. Life has to be lived going forward, even though it only starts to make sense looking back.

Post Script

There was a future celebrity at Michigan when I was there. Not Madonna…I am not quite that old. The actress Lucy Liu was in my class, though I never met her…her loss. I have faith that she has not let not meeting me in college derail her success professionally and personally.

I am also aware that my parents met in college in the line to register for classes. If not for that, I would not be here today. Where you go to school and where you work matter, but we can never know how much one possibility matters more than another.