In Pursuit of Humility

Our society, quite literally, prides itself on confidence. Our heroes and role models teem with it; the celebrities, Grammy-winning musicians, and sports superstars so many of us seem to idolize (and are taught to at a young age) overflow with a bounty of this particular character trait. As kids and into adulthood, we’re taught to hold our heads high, speak up, look others in the eyes, believe in ourselves, be proud, be confident, be bold. Like most, I faced my fair share of challenges in pursuit of such confidence as I labored awkwardly through adolescence, early adulthood, and the years beyond. Getting confident in one’s self isn’t easy and yet, along the way, I never doubted that doing so was important, if not essential.

It took a long, long time, but I did it. I finally became confident and proud of myself, especially as I settled into my calling as a professional therapist and writer. After all, why shouldn’t I be proud of myself? I’m a damn good therapist, right? I’m a better than average writer with a bevy of unique points-of-view and insights to share, right? I’m married to an amazing wife and am successfully raising two incredible boys, right?  Not to mention the fact that, throughout the entirety of my life, the society in which I’ve been raised has been touting the benefits of being supremely confident in myself. Yes, absolutely, positively, I should be proud of myself.

It was this exact level of confidence that I brought with me, about a month ago, to the all-day interview process for the University of Texas at San Antonio’s doctoral program in Counselor Education and Supervision. There I was, a seasoned veteran of counseling with nearly 10,000 hours of counseling experience, 5 years worth of experience supervising graduate student therapists, the clinical director, owner and founder of a large counseling clinic, published author, TEDx talk presenter, etcetera. I was clearly, by all criteria I could fathom, the Uber-candidate for this particular program.

The day of the interviews went astoundingly well. Rather than being my customarily shy self, I readily struck up lively conversations with faculty members and fellow candidates alike. I answered each interview question thoughtfully, striking a delicate balance of salient content with personal anecdotes. I was totally confident in myself, firing on all cylinders throughout every step of the process, chatting up one person after the next, animated, enthusiastic, alive. And once it was all done, I told my friends and family (who were awaiting to hear how everything went), “It honestly could not have gone any better. I nailed it.”

Three weeks later, I finally receive the email, subject line “UTSA Decision Posted”:

Dear Jason:

Your application and supporting documents have been carefully reviewed by the Doctoral Admissions Committee. We regret to inform you that you were not selected for admission into the Counselor Education and Supervision program for Fall 2016.

Utter shock,  bafflement, and confusion. This was inconceivable! Keep in mind that there were only six other candidates interviewed with me, and that UTSA accepted seven applicants the year before, and that, of the candidates interviewed, I had by far the most experience and best qualifications for doctoral study in this particular area. In fact, one of the other candidates pulled me aside at one point and confessed how intimidated he was by me because he presumed I was one of the faculty members! It all left me in a state of true wonderment. What the heck happened?

I will never know for sure the answer as to why, as I discovered from someone in the department, I “did not receive the minimum number of votes from the faculty required for recommendation for admission”, so I am left only to hypothesize. And the only answer I’ve been able to come up with is this: perhaps I came across as too self-confident.

If so, then I know I’ve been betrayed. I’ve been betrayed by a society that demanded I become confident only to punish me for the achievement. I’m not arrogant, just confident, confident about who I am, what I have to offer, what I have done and what that says about me as a person, what I deserve in terms of the little for which I am asking, namely, a little recognition and a chance to further be of service to others. Rejection, especially in the absence of clarity as to why, stings like a, well, it just stings.

So, here I am now, having summited the great and perilous mountain of self-confidence only to discover that a new mountain beckons ascent. This mountain has quite a different name, the name of humility. To climb this new mountain, I recognize I need not abandon my confidence, but must find a way to balance that which I have achieved by way of esteem with an equal measure of humility. This seems like the far taller and steeper mountain to climb and I am not entirely sure how to climb it.

I start by resisting my initial instinct to harbor resentment toward each member of the UTSA faculty who either failed to see my value or simply decided they did not like me for some personal reason, all those who voted against me. As much as I first wanted to lambast them for the lunacy of their decision, I ultimately choose otherwise, sending each individual faculty member an email entitled “An expression of gratitude”:

I wanted to take a moment to thank you for considering my application for UTSA’s doctoral program in Counselor Education & Supervision. I genuinely enjoyed interviewing with and meeting all the faculty, as well as my fellow PhD candidates.
     Naturally, I was disappointed to learn that I was not recommended for admission.  I regret that I failed to better represent myself during the interview process. Nevertheless, I am confident that those you selected will be tremendous additions to your program. It seemed like a fine group of applicants indeed.
     I look forward to the opportunity when our paths might cross again in the future, under differing circumstances.
Jason B. Fischer, MA, LPC 

I attached this image to each email, choosing humility over hubris, thankfulness over vitriol. After all, only with humility can I understand that UTSA did not fail me. I failed myself. Somehow, some way, I did not reveal to them my authentic self in a way that would have been discernible. That’s on me, not them. It is not their fault; yet nor is it mine. I have triumphed in the ways I have been taught to triumph by my culture. And, yes, my culture is wrong to put such a high value on confidence, at least to the extent that it overshadows or eclipses humility. Now, it is humility I choose to pursue instead.

Today, as I dust myself off and stand back to my feet, I have already applied to a new program at another university. This time, I will not hide my hard-earned confidence. I will just remember (though I may still remain at the foothills of the great peak) not to hide my humility either.