Rejection: My 20+ Years of Experience
It's not you...and it's not me, either
We all love a classic rejection-to-massive-success story. You know, the "I got rejected by 30 publishers but then became a best-selling author" or "my business went bankrupt 8 times but now makes millions a year." But no one mentions rejections in the moment... probably because it's embarrassing and not fun to talk about.
And yet, we all experience rejection. If you're actively looking to get involved with something new, make a pivot, or just generally find your place in the world as a young person (i.e. me), rejection is probably a regular part of life.
Unfortunately, rejection never feels comfortable no matter how many times you run into it.
So let's talk about it.
Types of rejection
We received an overwhelming number of applications from qualified candidates competing for few open spots. Please try again next application cycle!
I've heard some version of the above rejection statement many times.
Although most rejection emails blend together thanks to not-so-creatively-worded templates, I've experienced two different varieties of impactful rejection.
1. When I care
The first is something I really care about— usually an exciting opportunity I dedicate hours researching and preparing for. Throughout the process, I start visualizing my success and becoming emotionally invested in the outcome.
In November 2020, after a year of preparation, I was rejected from a program I thought would be my first step post-college. I talked about it constantly and everyone around me knew I was in the running for something I would surely get. Yet with one dismissive rejection call, all my efforts amounted to nothing.
Reflecting back, I'm proud and free of regrets because I did everything I could. On the other hand, I did everything I could, so... ouch.
After the disappointment faded, I accepted that although the rejection feels personal, in a few-spots-many-applicants situation, it's not.
Maybe I shouldn't have gotten so excited about an outcome that was never guaranteed. But the emotional investment allowed me to learn and prepare faster. I enjoyed the application process and made genuine connections along the way.
When was the last time you gave a second thought to rejections for opportunities you never wanted to work out anyway? Feeling the rejection hit your soul means you cared. And if you care, the opportunity is probably worth pursuing. So after the wallowing-in-sadness period, do try again. Do show up enthusiastically. Eventually, be it on try 3 or try 14, you'll succeed. (Disclaimer: relationship rejections lie outside the scope of this discussion... respect other people's personal choices, please).
2. When the little things add up to a big thing
The second category is the cumulative impact of many rejections. Each individual "no" doesn't hurt much (if at all), but the sequence leaves you feeling... disappointed? Fatigued? Uncertain? The thought of "am I really not good enough for anything?" surfaces after all the doors appear to have closed.
Georgetown has a strangely competitive club culture. I couldn't continue my high school extracurriculars (acapella and dance) because all 8 performance arts groups on campus rejected me...multiple times. I remember feeling so discouraged as a freshman thinking, "what now?"
Life is full of options, though, and just because the doors you're familiar with wont let you through doesn't mean you're out of options. Sometimes exhausting what you think you want is an indication of needing to look elsewhere. I ended up meeting my first boyfriend at the random-acts-of-kindness club (one of the few open membership clubs) and finding the marketing association as my more permanent extracurricular home sophomore year. Don't compromise on what you want, but stay open to where else your interests might lie.
Explanations or lack thereof
Sometimes rejections come with an explanation and sometimes they don't. Whether I've experienced a type I or type II rejection, missing an explanation leaves me wondering what I lacked and what I should've said or done instead.
Maybe the other candidates had the company name tattooed somewhere visible to the Zoom camera? (True story: The Georgetown Farmer's Market committee rejected me in favor of someone who had a carrot tattooed on their forearm...a fair win, honestly).
Although frustrating, explanations like "not enough relevant experience" or "too many women auditioned and we have to keep a gender balance" allow my mind to move on. There's nothing I could have done. And if there was, I know what to focus on next time.
Whether the rejection provided an explanation or not, every rejection teaches you more than resilience. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger... you already know that. But through the experience of rejection, I've learned how to practice for evaluations, how to search for alternatives, and how to reach out for help along the way. Each item on my ever-growing list of rejections didn’t lead to the result I wanted, but that doesn’t mean it was for nothing (cue Miley Cyrus' “it’s all about the climb").
An important distinction to keep is mind is that rejection isn't failure. The only true failure is when you decide to stop. When you run out of energy and decide your goal isn't worth pursuing anymore. So just keep going and you haven't failed. If anything, a steady stream of rejections indicates you're taking action, which is the foundation of progress. And progress is always a win.
You never know when or where you'll find what you're looking for, so don't let discouragement be the reason you don't find a fulfilling job/hobby/community/whatever else you're looking for. I'm right there with you, finding some things and still looking for others.
You can do this.
Here's a great video on a related note - A Different Way To Look At Failure.