I found out today that I’ve been passed over for a couple of jobs that I thought I was really well qualified for. I didn’t even get an interview.
Rejection is always deflating, especially when you expected to be very competitive! More generally, any time we are suddenly confronted with our own inadequacy can be very emotionally jarring. This happens all the time to us graduate students—I don’t know about you, but I start to question myself every time I have a conversation with somebody that I realize knows way more than me about a field I thought I was well versed in. Even people with a lot of self-confidence, I think, feel occasional pangs of imposter syndrome.
Whatever triggers my self doubt, these scenarios are absolutely a time for exercising the classical virtue of fortitude.
Within the Stoic world view, that initial feeling of disappointment and embarrassment is neither good nor bad: it’s perfectly natural. “We cannot avoid that first mental jolt,” says Seneca, any more than we can avoid “having another’s yawn provoke our own, or avoid closing our eyes at the sudden poke of another’s fingers” (On Anger, II.4).
What counts to a philosopher is what you do next: Do you buy into the self-defeating, irrational narrative of despair? Or do you take the event as a time to be rational, and to do your best to respond excellently (that is, with virtue)?
Doing the latter is tricky, because it means that I have to—in a moment of emotional vulnerability—quickly find a way to cognitively reframe the situation in a healthy way. As any counselor will tell you, getting to that healthy point of view sometimes takes a good deal of skill (which is why psychologists write whole textbooks on the stuff)!
Recently, I’ve found a particular passage from Epictetus to be useful. Whenever I feel overwhelmed by my own failures or by the relative successes of others, I crack open the Discourses and read this passage as a kind of triage:
It is good for you to know your own preparation and power, that in those matters where you have not been prepared, you may keep quiet, and not be vexed, if others have the advantage over you. For you, too, in syllogisms will claim to have the advantage over them; and if others should be vexed at this, you will console them by saying, “I have learned them, and you have not.” Thus also where there is need of any practice, seek not that which is required from the need, but yield in that matter to those who have had practice, and be yourself content with firmness of mind.
And there—magically, instantly, I am able to reframe the scenario in a healthy way, and to focus on the moment and what I should do in the future, rather than on the skills or performance I’ve failed to achieve in the past.
The Stoics counseled us to keep quotes like this in our back pocket—better yet, our memories—so we could draw on them in moments when they are needed. I’ve found this one useful a number of times in the past few weeks—I hope it helps you too.