Essay: How I mastered the ‘art of losing’ after an internship application gone wrong

Before the promise of turkey and stuffing dragged me away from my inbox, I opened an email last Wednesday to find a tantalizing opportunity. Among discount offers from the Campus Store, an invoice for the upcoming spring semester and countless well-wishes for Thanksgiving was one of the School of Media and Public Affairs’ weekly newsletters. The Wall Street Journal’s opinion section was looking for interns. The application was due Monday, and I knew I had to give it a shot.

Editorial journalism has defined the past five years of my life – I wrote dozens of columns for my high school newspaper, parlayed that interest into an application for SMPA and eventually joined The Hatchet as an opinions writer last year. So why not see how the professionals do it? It certainly didn’t hurt that the internship was paid, and I can think of worse places to spend a summer than New York City. With a vision of the Big Apple dancing in my head and the dulcet tones of Frank Sinatra ringing in my ears, I spread the news that I’d be applying in calls and FaceTimes to siblings, parents and grandparents, conjuring up visions of 10 weeks of journalistic training par excellence.

Come Sunday, Thanksgiving in all its gluttonous glory and the days that followed should have given way to a cover letter, resume and a handful of my best articles. Except they didn’t. I won’t be interning at The Wall Street Journal come summer. In fact, I didn’t even apply at all.

As the midnight deadline ticked ever closer Sunday night, I sat at my desk, staring at blank pages that should have been a cover letter and writing sample. I couldn’t, per the application’s instructions, find 600 measly words to write something consistent with The Wall Street Journal’s philosophy of “free markets, free people,” defend my most controversial opinion or write a letter to the editor. I called my mom and dad to break the news. The internship was off. I wasn’t applying. I lost this opportunity, and worse, I made myself lose it.

It’s easy to understand what happened – I didn’t write a cover letter or answer a prompt. But I’ve been trying to rationalize why I didn’t all week. Maybe I decided that The Wall Street Journal’s brand of sneering, I-told-you-so conservatism wasn’t for me. Maybe it was just procrastination. Maybe I didn’t care about it in the first place. Or maybe it was a combination of all three.

This slow-moving tragedy was the first time I’ve really tried – and failed – to secure an internship. I chucked my bare Word document into a folder on my desktop, took a step back from my computer and went through a bout of deep frustration. It didn’t help that I was the target of my own disappointment. My stomach churned, and I felt wisps of tears form in the corner of my eyes. I sabotaged myself, throwing away an opportunity that could have unlocked more paths to learn about editorial journalism, or at the very least, a chance to update my resume. Like infinitesimal grains of sand, a summer at The Wall Street Journal slipped through my fingers.

I don’t think I’m the only one who’s lost something amid this flurry of internship applications and finals. If you’ve procrastinated just a little too late to meet a deadline, flunked a test or even botched an application like me, you’ve lost. It’s all too easy to think that you failed or lost something because you’re bad – undeserving, unworthy of success.

But internships and other academic pursuits can’t measure your value as a person, like what you believe or how you behave. You can’t talk about how you kept your friends’ spirits up during an all-nighter or handed someone back the change that slipped out of their pocket on a resume, yet these skills are as valuable as an ability to crunch spreadsheets or shoot video. A 10-week internship in New York City or wherever else is not the be-all and end-all of the human experience, and an aborted application is no reason to doomspiral. And while no internship is guaranteed to be perfect, don’t settle for one at an organization whose philosophy, be it editorial or otherwise, stands at odds with your personal values.

Loss and failure are a regular part of life and we can either succumb to it or master it. And in my time of trouble, I turned to poet Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” a lovely piece I’ve revisited time and time again for class assignments and now for the wisdom it contains. “One Art” is an ode to loss and how we move on from it. In other words, it’s a guide to grief.

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” the poem begins. Yet this “art of losing” is actually pretty tricky to master. Lost keys or a wasted hour online are a far cry from a loved one passing away or a career opportunity that failed before it even began. But loss, both big and small, is normal. And it’s possible to move on from it. Like any loss, remember that a missed opportunity is neither a reflection of your self-worth nor the end of the world. It may take some convincing, but life goes on. Even the tears shed mourning the application that went unsent will dry at some point.

I don’t think Elizabeth Bishop, who died in 1979, could have ever expected a college student navigating the perils and pitfalls of internships to find solace in 19 lines of poetry. So I’ll leave you with the final lines of “One Art” – “The art of losing’s not too hard to master/though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” This has been my attempt to “write it!” And I feel better already. Loss hurts, but it doesn’t last forever.

Ethan Benn, a junior majoring in journalism and mass communication, is the opinions editor.

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