During four-and-a-half years at that law firm, I tried numerous small cases in my first year of practice, found a new specialty practice area in my second year, and was elected to lead the young lawyers association in my third year. I met with another “failure” on a professional and personal level, but it opened a door to a tremendous career opportunity in Houston, Texas, where I met the love of my life, with whom I now have four-year-old triplets.
Often, after speaking at an event, women come up to me and say, “You’re amazing, I don’t know how you do it all.” That’s because they’ve only heard my one-minute autobiography. In truth, that’s the only snapshot we see of many successful women today who are leading in law and beyond. It’s a 140-character Twitter description. A 40-word thumbnail bio. Who lists “Lost four cases last year” or “Screamed at my kids last night because I only had two hours of sleep”? No one. We post the pretty pictures on Facebook. We display the biggest awards on our shelves. We note the most impressive accomplishments in our biography.
Can I let you in on a secret? Every amazing leader I have met shares about failures they experienced along the way. When my longtime mentor Mary Cranston was chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, she asked me to author Learning to Lead: What Really Works for Women in Law, opening the door for me to ask some remarkable women how they became successful leaders. Almost every woman had stories of professional failure.
Senator Mazie Hirono shared that she lost the Hawaii gubernatorial race to the same person she later defeated to win her seat in the U.S. Senate. She encouraged women, “Dust yourself off and get back up. But learn something from the defeat. Allow the loss to provide you with the perspective that makes you stronger, so you can succeed the next time you dare to run the race, take the test, or seek the promotion.”
Justice Jennifer Elrod of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit shared about her own disappointing career setbacks. “You have to be willing to lose and fail and embarrass yourself,” she said. “I was passed over for two state district bench nominations before I ran for judge. It is not over if you ‘lose’ or ‘fail.’ I learned something through each of those periods. I learned more about people and the system and how much I really wanted it. There is life after defeat. Sometimes, it is an even better life than had you never taken the risk.”
You have to lead past the rejection. You have to lead in spite of it. You have to realize that sometimes it is through the failure a better opportunity emerges.
Once you know what you want, tenaciously fight to achieve your goal. There will be setbacks and losses. If it was easy, everyone would achieve success. Hang in there, sister. It’s worth the effort. And if you’re one of those fortunate ones who has achieved your goals, share your setbacks, too. It inspires those still climbing the mountain to focus on the view that lies ahead.