Overcoming Failure: 3 Steps To Get Back On Track
By Dave Tilley
I have told very few people this until now, but I was actually kicked out of my graduate Physical Therapy program in the last possible semester, after 6 1/2 years of work and $230,000 of financial investment into my doctoral degree. This left me with a whole lot of debt, no degree, and quite a pit in my stomach every day.
I was kicked out because I failed my acute care hospital rotation, the 2nd of my 3 rotations before graduation. At the time of starting my acute care rotation, I had just finished my sports medicine rotation and did very well. Unfortunately, I brought a huge ego with me to my acute care rotation.
I lacked both self-awareness and self-reflection to pick up on my insane amount of arrogance.
At the time of it happening, actually being told I was no longer in the program was the most devastating moment I had ever had in life. It absolutely crushed me. I had dedicated almost 7 years of my life to this, and it was my identity. Completing my degree was the only thing I wanted. Being kicked out was the biggest failure I had ever encountered. It spiraled me into quite a multi-month depression and unhealthy habits for self-medicating, to the point of needing to take anti-anxiety medicine and seeking professional help. By far the darkest few months of my life.
After the dust settled, I wrote a letter of appeal/apology, faced quite the panel of Deans, Professors, and student representatives to plead my re-admittance case, and was let back into the program.
I was placed on probation to finish my 3rd clinical with weekly check-ins, which was Home Care. That went just fine and I passed.
The real salt in the wound was at the end of the semester. Everyone in my class walked into graduation, got hooded with their Doctoral completion, and then had a massive party with the professors and their families to celebrate. I, however, did not get to attend any of this. Instead, on the day of their final ceremonies, I started another 12-week replacement clinical over the summer to make up for the clinical I failed.
The hardest weeks of my life came when each of my friends flooded social media with happy pictures from graduation, posts about passing their boards, and relief they had solidified a job.
I continued to grind away in 15 hour days as a student working for free, while my boards would be taken late and no job was even close to in sight. Not to be too graphic, but for 6 months I felt like life was repeatedly punching me in the face.
Eventually, after finishing my repeat clinical and tidying up the paperwork, I got my degree in the mail and officially graduated. Life rolled on, I took and passed my boards, found a job, and so on. I’m not telling this story to throw a pity party, because here’s the thing,
After 5 years of reflection, self-awareness, and growth, I realized this “failure” was one of the best things that had ever happened to me.
I couldn’t see it when it was happening, due to everything being very raw and me being blinded by my emotions.
However, it was during this 6 month period I learned how to be absolutely relentless. I discovered the importance of self-reflection, humility, and gratitude.
I realized the need to look directly at what terrifies you, from an emotional discomfort point of view and a deepest fears point of view. Most importantly, I learned that resilience in response to failure is a skill forged from actively working on your daily mindset and habits.
Without my academic and personal rock bottom, I would have never truly asked myself, “Are you happy with who you are as a human”. It made me who I am today. There is no question that the self-reflection, growth, and habits I built from that rough period are a huge part of my last five years of progress. It built the foundation for me to start an educational company, career, and field of work in Sports Physical Therapy.
In a funny plot twist, I’ve actually been asked by the program I got kicked out of to teach Sports PT classes to the current doctoral students over the last three years.
Developing resilience following a personal failure is not something that magically shows up from reading motivational books, blaming others for the problems, or faking your happiness. You can’t just wake up every day hoping you feel better, or that things magically get better. It comes from actively working through the discomfort and taking daily actions. It starts with self and social support, and then you must purposefully create a mindset, environment, and daily habits that combat negative influences, which inch you back on the right track.
Now, I would not wish my 6 month fall from egotistical grace on any person. I do not want people to voluntarily get kicked out of PT school, or martyr themselves to not succeed at something. I don’t want people to endure suffering at any level just because of the eventual ability to grow. What I want to offer readers is this:
If you wish to be successful in any aspect of life, you will inevitably fail at something. It’s going to hurt, and you will have to struggle. How you react to the failure, handle the emotional pain, and respond to the situation, will dictate the outcome.
You can let it bury you by choosing to avoid looking at your biggest fears, sources of pain, and areas for improvement. Or, you can become relentless by reflecting on the “failure”. Reverse engineer your biggest fears or pain generators, and gain insight into how it’s really an opportunity to improve yourself.
Overcoming failure can be difficult. I advise following these three steps:
#1 Absorb the Initial Impact and Control Your Emotions to Not Blow Up.
Handle the damage control if needed, and get things stabilized. Then, remember you’re human and give yourself a few days to be upset in a self-compassionate, healthy manner. This initial period sucks. A lot. But it will pass. Spend time with friends or family, do some other activities, journal about what’s racing through your brain, meditate, work out, whatever.
Just don’t fall into a negative spiral of self-pity and unhealthy coping mechanisms like drinking, gossiping, resentfully tearing through social media, or any other attempts to numb your pain. These attempts at a short-term cover-up often yield limited returns. Dig into your values and who you want to be. Once you clarify this, re-align yourself with your “why” for chasing the goal in the first place.
#2 Step Back and Objectively Look at the Situation.
After you avoid red lining from anger or sadness, take ownership of how you contributed to the personal screw-up. Remember, we are talking about something you did that resulted in failure to meet a goal. Be brutally honest with yourself about the issue, and ask for help from trusted support networks (friends, family, mentors, etc.) to get their opinion.
Figure out your pain sources, fears, insecurities, and areas of weakness that contributed. Truly lean into the discomfort and figure out what went wrong, and use this to disarm the emotional roller coaster you are on. If others are involved, communicate openly and transparently, and make sure that steps are taken to keep them involved.
#3 Build a Plan of Attack on a Global Level for Improvement, and Also Build a Plan of Attack on Daily Habits to Support that Goal.
Commit yourself to it, journal about it daily to stay on track, and do weekly self-reflection to make sure you are in alignment with your goals. I can’t offer certain times to expect, everyone and every situation are different. Some of my biggest failures have taken months, some I have been able to quickly step over and move on from in days.
Either way, by using the right head space and daily habits you’ll build your own road to growth brick by brick, and gain quite a bit of wisdom in the process.
Also by Dave Tilley:
Published in collaboration with Shift: Movement Science and Gymnastics Education