I was in a hotel room in Atlanta when I got the news that I didn’t get my dream job. It was literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The executive director of the faith-based organization where I work was retiring after 40 years. For the first time in many years, the top job was open.
I had worked at Faith in Action for over 20 years, working my way up from community organizer to national chief of staff. I knew how to lead. I knew every aspect of our work. I took the advice I’d given to the hundreds of young women and people of color I had mentored over the years: I believed in myself and I applied for the job.
When I got the news that I was being passed over, my husband Julio wrapped his arms around me in a big bear hug. Later that night, I had a good cry with my best friend. If you had asked me that night, I would have told you it was the lowest point of my career. I felt it all: sadness, disappointment, maybe even a little bitterness. All those years you put into a job – the late nights, the travel, the time away from family — and this is what you get back.
But today, I will tell you NOT getting my dream job is the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s helped me come alive. I learned three life-changing lessons by applying for my dream job and not getting it.
FIRST, I learned that “getting the job done is not enough.” I am a national leader in the fight for racial and economic justice. I’ve led successful campaigns for better wages, housing, schools, and homes people can afford to own. In 2016, I organized the country’s largest volunteer-led, non-partisan voting program. We spoke to nearly one million voters – black and brown voters who are usually ignored.
Even so, I learned that if I wanted the top job, I needed to use my voice in more powerful and positive ways. I joined Toastmasters which teaches leaders to be better listeners and speakers, and I have invested more time in writing and getting my ideas out into the world.
SECOND, I learned that I need to show up as my best self every day if I want to lead an organization. Sometimes, in the hustle and bustle of work, I hadn’t responded in the best ways to challenging people or situations. Research by Zenger and Folkman has found that “if you are a leader who is ranked low on likability, you ONLY have a one in 2,000 chance of succeeding.” Those are some tough odds. And research has also shown that women in powerful positions usually have to choose between being liked OR being respected. I think I can be both. I’ve made a commitment to being consistently loving and supportive with the people around me.
THIRD, and most important, I learned to focus on what I really want next and be open to new opportunities. Samuel Morse who invented the Morse code was originally a painter. His first telegraph was made using a repurposed painting canvas. If he hadn’t been open to new opportunities, you may not have had an iPhone today.
Regarding new opportunities, Howard Thurman, the great theologian and civil rights leader, said this:
“Don’t ask what the world needs.
Ask yourself what makes you come alive.
Then go do that.
The world needs people who have come alive.”
That night in Atlanta, I tasted defeat. But I also felt the kindness and support of my loved ones. I made myself more open to feedback and I also opened myself up to continuous improvement. Today, I get inspiration to be better and do better from everyone I meet. I have a friend named Brian who is becoming an artist and following his dream. I have another friend named Jessica who is finding her purpose in honoring her late father’s legacy. And at Toastmasters, my friend Frank is overcoming his fear of public speaking.
Together, we are trying to do big things, finding the loves of our lives, and doing the work that makes us come alive. Leadership isn’t about a job or a title. It’s about how you live your life and how you inspire others to be their best selves, too.
About the Author: Denise Collazo is a U.S. social justice leader, a mentor to powerful women of color and a family work integration innovator. She serves as the Chief of Staff of Faith in Action, the nation’s largest faith-based community organizing network.