While I was getting my PhD, I worked as an adjunct professor at a Christian college, averaging over 60 working hours per week. Since those hours were spread over three departments, I wasn’t considered full-time and didn’t receive benefits. During one Christmas celebration, leadership announced that everyone—part-time workers, staff, faculty, administrators, and even student workers would receive a $300 bonus. When I approached my boss, as he handed out the bonuses, he barely glanced at me before saying, “I don’t have anything for you.”
Academia is a hotbed of hierarchical dysfunction, and no group is more aware of that than adjuncts. I accepted my rank as second-class faculty as part of academia’s due process, but this event was particularly painful. It wasn’t the money (I could spin out a few articles and make that amount within a few hours); it was how dismissive the leadership was of my work. My boss could have said that though adjuncts didn’t qualify, they appreciated my work regardless. But he didn’t. I felt small and insignificant.
This is what losing feels like. We lose jobs, lose promotions, lose races we relentlessly trained for. Our applications are rejected, our ideas spurned, our qualifications minimized, our performance goes unnoticed. Losing makes us feel small, insignificant, and invisible. We know what the Scriptures say—that the acts done in secret are best, that God sees our efforts, and he is the only one who counts. Yet, most of us still hunger to be acknowledged, understood, and valued, and I don’t think this hunger is inconsistent with the Scriptures. It’s true that some crave recognition for the sake of recognition, but most of us just want a sign that our life and our work is meaningful, that how we spend the hours of our days really made a difference.
This is why losing hurts—because it causes us to question our worth and how we have chosen to use our time. The danger in losing is that it tempts us towards bitterness, a hardness of heart towards our work or others and it tempts us to give up. The voice of resignation is seductive, “See what you’ve got for all your efforts? Nothing.” To avoid giving in to these temptations and be faithful to your work, here’s what to do when you lose:
- Confess. Admit the loss, the rejection, for what it is. It sucks. It’s painful. It doesn’t do anyone any good to pretend otherwise. Confession pulls out into the open that which we are tempted to bury, and when we bury it, we implant it and it will spring up in areas of our lives we least expect it.
- Evaluate. What part of losing was within your control? What wasn’t? Losing can be just or unjust, and it’s important to discern the difference. Sometimes we lose and it’s just. We trained for the race but we didn’t give it our all. Sometimes we lose and it’s unjust. The judges are paid off. There are ulterior motives at play. Determine which it is or even if it a little of both. This will give you clarity about what you can and cannot change.
- Seek out encouragement. As a motivation to keep going, Stephen King used to hang rejection letters with a railroad spike. In the same way, you can treasure up the compliments and encouragement you’ve received over the years. Revisit them when you get discouraged or get tempted to give up. Doing this reminds you that losing is seasonal and temporary; it hardly has the final word.
- Compliment someone else. Acknowledge someone who is doing work you appreciate—maybe the very one you lost out to. Losing causes an inordinate amount of self-reflection and self-analysis—much more than is often necessary. Complimenting others is a spiritual discipline that removes the laser beam of focus from us onto others, relieving us from our own inner critic and freeing us to truly celebrate the accomplishments of others.
- Make a goal. Set a new goal for your work, whether it be in the area of loss or another area altogether. Occasionally, in response to losses in my professional life, I’ve made new goals in my physical life—like running a half-marathon or climbing the Grand Canyon from rim to rim. Setting goals, either inside or outside the area of loss gives us motivation to move forward.
Ultimately, everyone loses. Everyone is disappointed. Everyone feels a failure. The question is not whether or we will lose, but how we respond once we do.