My day in the sun had arrived - my magnum opus would be revealed. I had just delivered a memorized speech that I had labored over for weeks, and I was about to learn how the panel judged my performance.The polite but sparse audience leaned forward in their folding chairs. A hush fell across the room. The drum rolled (in my mind, anyway).
The contest organizer announced the third-place winner. Alas, the name was not mine. Then he read the second-place winner, and once again it was not me. At last, the moment of truth came. Either I was about to bask in the warmth of victory or rue the last several months spent preparing. While neither of these came to pass, my heart felt closer to the latter.
Losing is a part of life, but it was an indescribably underwhelming feeling to drive 200 miles round trip, get up obscenely early on a freezing Saturday morning, and yet still finish fourth out of four contestants. After Lincoln lost the 1858 Illinois Senate race, he reportedly said, "I felt like the 12-year-old boy who stubbed his toe. I was too big to cry and it hurt too bad to laugh." Oh yeah, I could relate.
I had spent many hours in front of a computer and in libraries doing research for the Lincoln Bicentennial Speech Contest. As I pored over several biographies, one notion stood out: Lincoln was handed many sound defeats, but he never allowed them to permanently hinder his spirit or ambition. While I believe many history lessons can be applied to modern life, I hadn't considered "the agony of defeat" as a historically valuable learning experience. I never dreamed I could relate to Lincoln! A president no less , and the greatest at that. I thought "failing successfully" was a very appropriate topic, given the many letdowns Lincoln experienced, and so this became the title of my speech.
After not placing in the first year of the speech contest, I really wanted to compete again. Lincoln had been the epitome of persistence, so I was not going to give up on a contest about a historic individual who did not give up! I reworked my speech for the following year, and while I did not come in last, again I did not place. Some days you're the dog, and some days you're the hydrant, and this was definitely a hydrant day that brought me down for a while.
I couldn't accept the fact that I had failed twice in something that I had worked so hard on, until I contemplated the individual whom I'd spent so much time learning about. Never mind the lost prize money (ouch, major) and praise (ouch, minor) - I had learned, really learned, about a great man who had experienced failure and disappointment, and had many chances to give up. We remember Lincoln because he didn't take this route; he didn't throw lavish pity parties, and he persevered to become, according to many, the greatest American president.
While I did not earn monetary awards as a result of this contest, I did gain a new perspective. Through learning about Lincoln, I discovered that I can fail successfully, and that it is possible to glean applicable wisdom from the lives of those who have come before us. Now, whenever I'm faced with a setback, I remember what Lincoln said after his unsuccessful 1854 Senate race: "The path was worn and slippery. My foot slipped from under me, knocking the other out of the way, but I recovered and said to myself, 'It's a slip and not a fall.'"