Finding Learning In Challenges
Updated: Aug 21
I have been quiet on the writing front over the last month or so, spending my time reflecting on success, failure, and setbacks. In the last two months, I have experienced what could be considered all three. I am learning that distinguishing one from the other isn’t always easy and often comes down to your mindset. I am going to share one of my recent experiences to capture this difficulty to relate it to your dream job search. I hope you enjoy it and learn something about me, my mindset, and the importance of learning and applying it to future endeavors.
On April 8, 2023, I ran in the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile trail race dubbed Relentless. This challenging course has over ten thousand vertical feet of climbing and descent over 51 miles. With all of California’s rains this year, mud made a difficult course even harder. Having never run a 50-mile race, I went into it with very limited expectations. I wanted to finish the race and have a good time!
By those two measures, my race was a great success. I finished and had a great time! The support of my wife, Lotte, and daughter, Charlotte, at the aid stations along the way made it even better. It was amazingly uplifting to see their faces, hear them cheering for me, and know they had my junk food bag with them (filled with Donettes donuts, raspberry licorice, and Fritos corn chips)!
I did a lot of mental gymnastics to get to that place before even starting the race. Imposter syndrome hit me hard as I waited for race time (have you ever experienced this before an interview or in a new job?). I looked at my fellow racers and realized I didn’t belong. They were fitter, younger, and faster than me. Who was I to think I could run with them? I am a 53-year-old guy who started running in his mid-40s and who had never run the distance or experienced this much elevation gain and loss. Who was I to race with these people!?! I used the tools I learned along the way to quiet that negative, internal voice, but it nagged and threatened my confidence. As we got closer to the start time, I reminded myself of my goals and that I needed to focus on the factors within my control and let go of the rest. I needed to run my race.
As the race began, the experiences gained from a decade of running other races kicked in (like reflecting on those interviews that got you other jobs or that offered learning opportunities) all of the lessons you can only get by entering the arena: all the successes, setbacks, and failures.
The race went well through the first 35 miles when I noticed my fingers beginning to swell. By mile forty, I could no longer make fists. I determined this had to do with my sodium intake, but unfortunately, I thought it was from taking in too much sodium. In actuality, it was due to not taking in enough sodium. Rather than correcting the situation, I made it worse by decreasing my sodium intake. My body gave me a few other signs, all of which I ignored.
I pushed through the remaining 11 miles and crossed the finish line in 64th place out of 375 starters. I ran the race in about ten hours and 45 minutes, well ahead of my goal time. I felt amazing at the finish hugging my wife and daughter and congratulating those I was lucky enough to run with as they crossed the finish line. I ate and drank like crazy.
About an hour after finishing, we started the hour or so drive home. Five minutes in, I asked Lotte to pull over as I felt sick. I vomited in a vineyard for about five minutes before reentering the car. We drove another 15 minutes before we needed to pull over again. At this time, my memories get fuzzy. I remember being on all fours in a parking lot and vomiting. I remember talking about needing to go to the hospital. By now, it was about 7:00 PM. I have no memories from this time until about 4:00 AM. I don’t remember getting into the car, being driven to the hospital, or entering the hospital. For nine hours, I interacted with people, went through countless tests, and have no memory of any of it. During that time, doctors determined (wrongly) that I had sustained a stroke and had a lesion on my cerebellum (again, thankfully, wrongly). I was so out of it that I could not tell the doctors who my wife was and could not identify simple objects like a key.
At 4:00 AM, after receiving a saline drip for almost 8 hours, my brain turned back on, just like flipping a switch. All stroke symptoms disappeared. An 11:00 AM MRI on Easter Sunday showed that the apparent lesion on my cerebellum did not exist and was likely an imaging error due to my moving during the initial scan.
I did have two race-related issues; hyponatremia and rhabdomyolysis. The rhabdomyolysis quickly resolved itself. The biggest problem was hyponatremia or low blood sodium. The average range of sodium in the blood is from 135 to 145 milliequivalents per liter (mEq/L). At my lowest, I was at 123 mEq/L. After bringing my sodium levels back up to normal, I was released from the hospital at 11:00 AM on Monday.
Was my race a success? A failure? A setback? Can it be more than one? Like many questions, there is no right answer. This is where mindset comes into play. As my wife likes to remind me, the race almost killed me. At the same time, it provided me with plenty of things I can learn from should I choose to do another endurance event of this nature. I now know what it means when my fingers swell and how to reverse that trend. I know how to prepare myself in advance of the race and how to adjust my hydration and nutrition strategies to avoid this. Finally, I know when to pull the plug and withdraw from the race.
I can view the race as a failure (it almost killed me, put me in the hospital for two nights, and scared the heck out of my wife) or as a success (I achieved something I had never accomplished before, my time was faster than expected and I showed myself that I did belong with my fellow racers). I can see the race as a setback that I must learn from (my body gave me signs I didn’t know how to read, others that I ignored, and my learning about the two conditions I developed and how I can avoid them in the future). It is complicated, but only if one gives it the time and attention it deserves. It would be simple to declare it a success or a failure, but that doesn’t capture the nuances of the experience.
Two and a half months later, I see it as a blend of the three, but most importantly, a setback from which I can learn and grow. In reflecting on my life’s success, whether as a student, a teacher, a leader, or a coach, it is my ability to learn from my successes, failures, and setbacks that has brought me my greatest successes. I wish I could say that charting these successes, would show a straight and upward trending line. The truth is that my chart shows peaks, and valleys representing learning opportunities. It is this learning that has helped me to find success. Research backs up this perspective.
Business Insider recently summarized a research study by Dahun Wang in an article titled, “Researchers found a surefire predictor of success — and what separates those who find it from those who keep failing.” In this study, researchers found that the most successful people fail and fail. The difference between those who ultimately experience success and those who continue without finding success is how they fail and what they learn from their failures. The most successful learn rapidly from their failures and incorporate their learning into future endeavors. More specifically, researchers found the following:
At one extreme, the very worst learners incorporate zero information from their previous tries, starting from scratch on every component every time. At the other extreme are perfect learners, who consider all of their past failures with each fresh attempt. Most people are somewhere between these two extremes.
While perfect learners will likely achieve success quickly, the model predicts, the worst learners have a low chance of success—since they never learn anything, they simply "thrash around for new versions," Wang says, wasting valuable time going back to the drawing board again and again.
The researchers tested this model with their data, using the average time between attempts as a proxy for an individual's learning ability (since better learners will start from scratch on fewer components, allowing them to produce new iterations quickly).
What they found was a surprising relationship between learning and eventual victory. It's not the case that each additional unit of learning boosted one's odds of success equally. Rather, there's a singular learning threshold that separates eventual successes from the rest.
Wang compares this threshold to the transition between water and ice. "Imagine I go from -5 to -4 degrees Celsius," he explains. "Nothing happens. The ice stays as ice." But the moment the temperature hits a particular point, it begins to melt.
Similarly, if someone's learning ability is below the threshold, it's as if they were learning nothing at all. They may improve slightly over time, Wang says, but they will never retain enough good components to produce full-throated success.
But those beyond the threshold should retain enough lessons to all but guarantee success. They produce new iterations faster and faster over time until they eventually have a successful one.
There are clear parallels to my racing experience. If I want to be successful, I must race and (most importantly) learn. Not doing so will result in future failure with life-threatening consequences. If I am ever to do something like this again with my wife’s support, I better articulate what I have learned and how I can do it safely!
Please use this as a reminder to continue learning. Use all of the tools at your disposal to improve your job application packet. Take every opportunity to learn from your job application submissions and interviews. Most important, control your mindset to see situations wherein you view learning opportunities as setbacks rather than failures. Setbacks provide opportunities to learn, grow, and get you closer to achieving your dream job.
Finally, remember you don’t have to do this alone and through job applications/interviews. Only iterating each time you go through the process ties your learning curve to the frequency of your applications and interviews. If you participate in practice interviews with trusted colleagues or experts in the field (like me), you will accelerate your learning opportunities and processes.
Let me know if you are ready to ask for help!
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Kris Cosca has dedicated his career to public schools for 30+ years as a teacher and administrator. Most recently, he served as superintendent of a 7,500-student K-12 district in Northern California. Kris has experienced the joys and the challenges at every level – from the classroom to the school board room. He navigated curriculum changes, enrollment challenges, pandemic restrictions, labor negotiations, and staff burnout. As a leadership and career coach, Kris now shares his expertise with Next Level Leadership Services clients.
Public service runs in the family. Kris' father was a long-time district superintendent in Southern California, and Kris married a high school science teacher with whom he has two adult children. Dedicated to his Napa Valley community, Kris serves on the Connolly Ranch Education Center board of directors and supports local, environmentally-friendly acts of kindness through his Facebook Group, Earth's Everyday Heroes.
Kris also is an avid outdoorsman who fly fishes, ties flies, backpacks, hikes, runs, and cycles.