It’s nearly that time of year when high school seniors start hearing from colleges – hoping to be accepted and dreading the rejection letters. I remember those days, the anxiety and nervous energy, waiting to see what the future held.
In the 30 years since I awaited my own set of letters, I’ve learned a lot about rejection. That contrary to popular belief, rejection may not be the enemy, but instead can often be a helpful guide.
I say this because we don’t always know what’s in our best interest. I might think that working for large corporation A is my dream job only to find when they don’t hire me, that small organization B was exactly where I fit and what I needed to both build my skills and open new doors.
Rejection offers us a chance to re-think our plan -- to realign or challenge our initial beliefs -- and ensure that where we think we want to go is indeed in our highest and best good.
Here’s How Rejection is Helpful
1. We Get What We Need.
When I was a senior in high school, I really wanted to go to Brown University. It was my first choice not because I thought it was the best fit for me but because I wanted to please my parents. Then they could boast that I was at an Ivy League school. I’d also feel validated that I was indeed smart. I didn’t get in – along with 90+ percent of the other applicants. Instead, I went to Boston University.
Initially I felt rejected and lost. How could Brown not want me? I’m not good enough, smart enough… until one day I was listening to that famous Rolling Stones song and was reminded that I might not always get what I want but I get what I need.
I know it’s a cliché, but in that moment a light bulb went on and I realized that was precisely what had happened. I’d worked my tail off in high school and soon discovered that BU was easy for me after the rigor of a private New England prep school. The truth was that I got an amazing education in high school. I’d learned how to think, how to analyze and apply information. What I needed in college was to develop my social and emotional skills so I could both understand myself as well as interact comfortably and confidently with others. And that is exactly what I got.
2. 3s the Charm
About 10 year ago I went to a workshop focused on money and success with Harv Eker. It was one of those marathon weekends where participants work in large hotel conference rooms from early in the morning until nearly midnight.
One of my takeaways from that intensive was to be ready for rejection AND try again. We have to be willing to try at least 3 times to succeed. Most people hear “no” once and give up. Our challenge is to hear “no” and persevere right through that until we hear “yes.”
3. It Isn’t Personal
I recently submitted a book proposal for a competition that a publisher was holding. I didn’t win. At first I was a little shocked but then I told my daughter that they’d received something like 160 entries. She looked at me and said, “Mom, that’s less than a 1% chance!”
I suddenly realized she was absolutely right. And I also reminded myself that it wasn’t a personal rejection. Later, I was talking to an art friend of mine. She said, “I tell everyone – submit, submit submit. Because what a committee will choose today is different than what they’ll choose tomorrow. Don’t be afraid.”
Instantly I knew she was right too. Committees are made of people and they may like Sculpture 1 today and Sculpture 2 tomorrow just as they may like Book X today and Book Y tomorrow.
It’s about how we interpret these momentary set backs.
Do we allow them to shut us down and internalize them to think we’re bad, unworthy or undeserving? Or do we use rejection as fuel to carry on regardless knowing that we’re getting what we need in the moment and that life’s taking us exactly where we need to go.
Like lots of things, it’s a re-frame. When we can look at rejection not like an enemy but instead as a fact of life, a roadblock, or even a helpful guide, it can help us embrace it and learn from it rather than allow it to haunt us.
As I said to my 15 year-old this morning when I dropped her off at school, “Take chances! Challenge yourself.” That’s the way we truly grow by stretching ourselves and being willing to take risks. And built into that is rejection. So we might as well get used to it.