If you know me at all, you know I’m properly obsessed with New Zealand. I studied abroad there in 2008, and started returning regularly as a speaker/mentor in 2015. I’ve made the transpacific journey 13 times, and have come to fortunately refer to the Air New Zealand long-haul between SFO and AKL as “my commute.” I’ve been a judge for the New Zealand Hi-Tech Awards for five years, volunteered for multiple Māori hackathons, and consider many in my Kiwi community to be family. Aotearoa is where I feel most at home.
When the Edmund Hillary Fellowship was announced a few years ago, it was instantly on my radar. Friends emailed me links to the landing page, and my partners in the government seductively nudged me to apply. Taking care of family kept me coy until Cohort 4, in early 2018, when I proudly submitted my application. I made it to the final round, spoke authentically of my deep passion for NZ innovation, and eagerly anticipated the email months later with the news, even inviting a dear friend over for dinner.
I was rejected. And it stung, bad. I seldom set highly-specific goals, but I wanted this one. And this near miss was a total slap in the face. I let the tears come. I took a pathetic selfie. And I publicly admitted defeat. I wasn’t sure if or when I would apply again, but I knew the NZ fire still burned hot.
I continued to come down, speaking around the country, volunteering at Māori hackathons, and deepening my connection with the people. We didn’t talk about it too much, but I think everyone knew I hadn’t given up.
After a hack in Hawke’s Bay on February 28th, 2020, and a very special set of days, I knew it was time to apply again. I’d spent the last 18 months talking with existing fellows, staff, and others in the network to try and understand how I could be better, how I could add more value to this place I love so deeply. They were kind, patient, and often direct. I listened. And I began to pull my application together.
Having been rejected before, I knew my approach needed a makeover. I couldn’t shake this feeling that there was something that I wasn’t able to say for myself, but that I felt my community could say for me. Call it social proof, call it a needed ego boost, or call it strategic, either way I needed letters of recommendation. I messaged my nest directly to ask for their help while I debated sharing this ask more broadly. Realizing I had nothing to lose and everything to gain, I invited my network to share their support for my application on social media.
When I opened the google form the next morning I cried. 33 people had submitted letters on my behalf. A full classroom of humans took time out of their days to help make my dream come true. I read through them. I felt hope. And in that moment, I knew I had already achieved my goal. If I was the person described in these letters, I had already won.
I made it through the first two interviews and uneasily awaited the email with the news. Again surrounded by great friends, I over-served myself red wine. I could feel something was awry.
I was waitlisted. The pandemic had increased interest in the fellowship immensely and the applicant pool was undoubtedly outrageously competitive. There was a wee glimmer of hope in the bottom of the email encouraging me to express my continued interest, should a visa become available. I filled it out with feigned enthusiasm. I had failed, again, to achieve my dream. And this time I had thirty-three fucking phone calls to make to share the news. I wasn’t going to hold my breath any longer.
As I neared the end of my list, and my voice (I scream-cry-sang it completely gone on the drive south from Portland,) I texted a friend in Montana. One of those friends. The kind you can ugly cry with. I sent him a screenshot of the waitlist news, and my message of defeat. He wrote back, “wait, there’s still hope right?” To which I sassily retorted, “there’s no way a visa frees up in 2020. I’m not holding my breath.” And he then replied with a message I’ll never forget: “I’ll hold my breath for you. That’s what friends do.” I was still a basket case, but I let his words sink in. I decided I would let him hold his breath for me.
Five weeks later, I was driving home from my Mom’s on the hot and dusty 101 freeway. Both my mutt Martini and I were due for a pit stop, and I pulled over near King City. The day before, I told nobody and sent the fellowship selection committee one final email – the last feeble attempt to stay top of mind, a hail-mary of a follow up, requesting they review my letters of recommendation. Just in case it was down to the wire, I wanted my squad by my side. It was a bold move, but… that’s pretty on brand for me. I was sweating, but not because I expected any response in return. It was scorching as I turned off the car. Looking down, FaceID unlocked my screen. I instinctively checked my email.
“Congratulations! And Welcome to EHF!” The top subject line read.
All my brain could think was, “What the fuck!? Wait. I’m in!? I’M IN HOLY SHIT!!!!!!”
This time the drive was different. I made those 33 calls all over again, to apologize for my premature pity party, and start planning my future. And it still doesn’t feel real yet.
So, the next time you find yourself in that absolute shit spot of utter failure, take a moment to acknowledge and lick your wounds. Feel the ache. Let it all out (as I learned, scream therapy is a thing.) Then use that hurt to fuel your next ascent. Continue to dream. Bring your community army next time. Follow the f*ck up. And when the good news finally arrives, bask in the incredible feeling of knowing you did it. That you persevered. That you earned the view from this temporary summit. And that you are truly capable of anything.