What do you do when you apply for a position and don’t get it? On this show Sarah O’Shea, Head of Youth Services at the Tompkins Public Library in New York, shares how though this can feel like a set-back there are ways to move forward that allow for self-care, regrouping, and coming back with new focus and strength.


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Adriane Herrick Juarez:

This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

What do you do when you apply for a position and don’t get it? On this show Sara O’Shea, Head of Youth Services at the Tompkins Public Library in New York, shares how though this can feel like a setback there are ways to move forward that allow for self-care, regrouping, and coming back with new focus and strength. It’s a relatable topic that can help us all. Enjoy the show!

Erin, welcome to the show.

Sarah O’Shea:

Thanks so much for having me. It’s such a pleasure to be here. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1: It’s a pleasure to have you here. Today we are talking about the topic, So You Didn’t Get the Job, Now What? Many of us have applied for positions that we haven’t received, which can feel like a professional setback. As we start, will you share your thoughts on how not getting a job we want can become a positive experience?  01:24 

Sarah O’Shea:

It certainly does not feel like a positive in the moment, and I’m not going to sugarcoat it, it does feel awful when you don’t get a job—especially one that you feel like you were very qualified for and prepared for. But throughout my own personal experience I really have discovered, myself, that going through a setback while having wonderful support—both professionally, and personally, I began to see the positives in the experience. Honestly, it’s a constant process. I have to remind myself of the positives at times, but overall I have found a lot of positives through this experience.

Setbacks have forced me to reevaluate myself professionally. It’s given me some time to look at my current job, and my current area of responsibility allowing me to ask questions of myself, What can I control? What do I like? What do I not like in my current situation? A lot of self-reflection comes out of a setback. It has also allowed me to think more deeply about what I want out of a job and to narrow down what I’m looking for as I look for other jobs, or other opportunities—not that I’m actively trying to find something different, but just to keep my eye out while I am doing that.

Not getting a job you were hoping for gives you an opportunity to refocus on your current area of responsibility and what you can control. After my setback I took a look at my department and focused on lifting some COVID protocols that we had in place at the time. It really gave me a sense of return to normalcy which felt good. It also felt like a small victory to increase the access to our patrons at that time. I really tried to focus on what I had control of, at that time, despite my disappointment.

Setbacks have also allowed me to do so many things I wouldn’t have done otherwise. It’s pushed me way out of my comfort zone and into some really great opportunities such as being on this podcast. I’ve been able to find other successes through other opportunities that have come my way that I don’t think, necessarily, would have if everything had gone according to my plan. 

I like to keep in mind that there’s a study by the University of Arizona that found that there’s an optimal failure rate. They say if you fail fifteen percent of the time you’ll enhance learning, you’ll keep trying and you’ll stay motivated. They refer to it as a Goldilocks, or a just right amount of failure. So I like to remind myself when going through types of things like that, I’m just adding to that perfect rate.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #2: What is the importance of taking the time for self-care after a rejection?  04:30 

Sarah O’Shea:

Self-care is so important. So many of us often don’t want to show weakness, or just want to plow through things that are unpleasant or seemingly negative. Our culture really  encourages us to do that. Studies show that we learn more from our setbacks if we allow ourselves to feel the pain and sit in the uncomfortable for a bit. Research done at Ohio State University found that when people focused on their emotions after a loss, instead of rationalizing it or processing it cognitively, they were actually more likely to do better the next time. So that reinforces this idea of just take a minute, give yourself a break. We need to rest and care for ourselves so we can come back strong. I’ve always been a firm believer that we have to let ourselves be weak for a moment or two so that we can come back as strong as possible and be the best we can be. We need to get those bad emotions out and just rest and relax.

I like to think of it as if you break your ankle, for example, if you try to run on it straight away it’s not going to heal well and you’re not going to do a good job in running. If you stay off of it and you rest, it will heal and then you can go back to your running, and you can be strong and fast just like you were before. I think with our mental health it’s very similar.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3: Why might we want to ask for a follow-up meeting with the hiring body when we don’t receive a position, and what does this involve?  06:01 

Sarah O’Shea:

I definitely recommend reaching out to what I call the deciders. I’m not going to lie, it’s a very intimidating thing to do, especially when you feel like you’ve been knocked down, but there’s so many benefits that come out of it. 

I suggest you wait until you feel stronger, so this would be after you have given yourself some time for self-care, recharged—but once you do feel a little bit back on your feet try to make some arrangements. Reach out to those deciders and ask if they’re willing to meet with you and talk about areas of improvement to help further your own career path. 

I recommend having questions prepared ahead of time. Some of the questions that I recommend are what did they see in the successful candidate that they liked? Where are areas you, yourself, could improve on from their perspective? So aligning to that question is, oftentimes, they’ll also talk about some of your strengths that they see—so that’s always nice to hear a little bit about. 

I also think asking if there are any upcoming opportunities in the organization, if that’s something you’re interested in. That’s something you can talk to them about as well. It’s super important, no matter what you feel on the inside, that you don’t show sour grapes when you have this meeting with the deciders. You don’t want to criticize their choice or anything like that. That’s never a good look for anyone. You want to make sure that doesn’t happen. And of course you want to make sure you definitely thank them both for giving you the original opportunity to interview, as well as meeting you again—because obviously, people’s time is precious these days. So, it’s very generous of them to spend some time talking to you about this.

Like I mentioned, it can be such a challenging thing to do that you may just want to skip it altogether, but there’s a lot of benefits that come out of meeting with people. Number one, you get the answers of basically what went wrong, instead of having to guess why they didn’t find you to be the best candidate. You have an opportunity to hear from them what they were looking for, what was it that they didn’t see in you for that position? 

In that discussion you can find areas that you can work on and improve. Focus your energy on strengthening those areas. It also demonstrates an incredible amount of professionalism to those in the deciding seats, and it can really set you up for success if you find yourself in front of those deciders in the future. And it makes you feel pretty good if you’ve done a hard thing—you faced it. You met with them. You got some answers. You should really give yourself a chance to pat yourself on the back when you do something like that.

You definitely want to make this setback as beneficial as you can. As one of the officers of the University of Chicago study on sharing professional successes and failures mentioned, failure stings so we don’t want to think about it. I think we can all relate to that, but if you don’t stop to think about something it’s hard to extract information—important information from that. This meeting is the perfect chance to extract some of that information to make this as beneficial as possible for you.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4: How can we use what we learn after a rejection to refocus and further strengthen our resume?  09:33 

Sarah O’Shea:

You can definitely work on your areas of improvement that you’ve learned if you did take the chance to meet with the deciders and shore up those skills that maybe you’re not as strong in. Professional development is a great way to do that, as well as to find other things you might be interested in, or suited to. There are free and low-cost professional development opportunities out there. I really recommend people keeping an eye out for those. 

I find, personally, Ryan Dowd’s programs to be just absolutely fantastic. It’s such a wonderful mix of practical suggestions and inspiration. Those professional development opportunities can absolutely strengthen your resume, and your experience.

There’s also an opportunity to maximize on your strengths. Like I mentioned before, you’ll not only learn about things you need to strengthen, but more likely than not you will hear about good qualities you can build upon when you meet those deciders, as well. 

This is a wonderful opportunity to highlight those strengths and find different opportunities for yourself. Whether that be doing a presentation at a conference at your state level—at the national level, writing articles for the various journals that are in our profession—joining committees. After my setback I got involved, quite a bit, in several MYLA committees. I honestly don’t think I would have been motivated to do that had it not been for this experience. So all of those things help to get your name out there, and they help to give you invaluable professional experience that looks amazing on your resume.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5: You say that there’s a place for mentorship in this process. Will you tell us about that?  11:16 

Sarah O’Shea:

Mentoring is so beneficial in rebounding. Like I mentioned before it was my supports professional, and personal who helped me through my setback and encouraged me to think outside the box—to beef up my resume with the other opportunities like I was talking about before, and to build my confidence back up, because it does not feel good to not get something you were looking forward to.

I had always viewed my previous director, Susan Curry, as a mentor, but after my setback occurred that relationship was really solidified. Susan was instrumental in giving me great feedback and encouraging me to pursue opportunities, and just in general, not to give up on myself professionally, which is very, very powerful when you’re feeling weaker than you would like to. 

Mentors can help you see things in different ways and can share with you their knowledge and experience to put what you’re dealing with in perspective. Sometimes an outside perspective is exactly what you need when you’re lost in your own thinking. They can also help you make connections which is incredibly beneficial professionally, and they can help you to think of things that you might not ordinarily think of yourself. So all of those things help you look at the experience from different angles. 

Not only having a mentor, but being a mentor can really help boost your confidence and bring back joy and engagement in the profession, which can definitely take a hit after you’ve had a setback. Not only should you consider gaining a mentor, but consider being one for someone yourself. 

There’s many opportunities to find, and become a mentor. There’s formal programs that are often offered through library schools, professional organizations, of course like the public library association, American Library Association. Your state library association, most likely has a formal mentoring programming you can get involved in. But also don’t just forget to look around in your own life as well and see who it is that you admire—who would you like to learn from. I know it can sometimes be intimidating to ask people to help in this way but really don’t be shy because I have found that people are often so generous with their time, especially in our profession because we are a profession of collaborators and helpers. I have never reached out to another library, or librarian who wasn’t thrilled to help me with various things, whether it’s a program idea, or you know anything like that. I have just never found anything but total willingness to help out. Don’t be shy and ask those people around you for their help. They’ll be happy to do it.


Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6: Is there anything else you would like to share?  14:13 

Sarah O’Shea:

I would just like to remind the listeners to just be kind to yourself when this does happen. You’re absolutely not alone, even though it can certainly feel that way when you’re in the moment. Once you’ve paused and rested, start looking for those positives and those opportunities, and you really might be surprised by what you find. We really do learn as much, if not more, from setbacks, than successes. Serendipitously, I came across a wonderful quotation from Serena Williams, who’s obviously been in the news a lot lately with her retirement. She said, I don’t like to lose at anything, yet I’ve grown most not from victories, but setbacks. I really think a champion is defined not by their wins, but by how they can recover when they fall. I just thought that was so perfect for this topic.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7: Do you have any favorite management, or leadership books, or resources, and why?  15:06 

Sarah O’Shea:

I have found the book, Lead Like it Matters…Because it Does, by Roxie Bahar Hewertson, (I’m hoping I’m pronouncing her name correctly) to be incredibly useful. She actually has worked at Cornell, here in Ithaca, so I had the pleasure of taking a workshop with her that she ran. I frequently reach back to that text as I’m working on my day-to-day duties managing a department.

The book includes a lot of practical tools, which as I mentioned with the professional development I’m all about practical tools and skills for leaders. She organizes them under four main categories, including personal mastery—which includes things like emotional intelligence, understanding your personality type, that sort of thing, including your personal mission, and vision, and values, which is really valuable. Interpersonal mastery, which includes things like deep listening, giving constructive feedback, that sort of thing. 

Team mastery which includes the group dynamics, decision-making, running meetings, building trust, and culture. And systems mastery, which includes the larger cultural analysis—accountability, recognition, that sort of thing. So she really takes it and looks at it on different levels of being a leader. I found that very, very helpful and often reach for that book.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #8: Thank you. Sarah, in closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally?  16:36 

Sarah O’Shea: 

I’m so proud to work in libraries, particularly public libraries, because I think they’re so essential to our democracy and to the equity that we should always be striving for. These days especially, our focus on information literacy, combating disinformation, and supporting all of the people in our communities is just more important than ever. 

Ever since I got my first job as a library shelver, way back when—when I was in college. I instantly knew that public libraries were the place for me, and I’m just so deeply proud at all the work that public libraries do to be a place for everyone in our community, which seems to be getting more and more rare. I’m just super proud to be part of these organizations.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Sarah, thank you. You have provided such relatable and useful information that I know many of us will need at one time or another in our career. It’s good to know that even given what can feel like a setback there are practical steps to take to refocus and come back even stronger. Our listeners are going to truly benefit from the information you shared today. Thank you for being here.  

Sarah O’Shea:

Thanks so much. It’s been such a pleasure.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into LibraryLeadershipPodcast.com where you can now subscribe to get episodes delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

We would like to thank the Park City Library for their dedicated support of this show. The opinions expressed on this show are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of Library Leadership Podcast, or our sponsors.