I’ve been rejected in all manner of ways. Here are some recent ways:
-Jobs I’d applied to rejecting me after months and months of radio silence. (I was rejected by a good 15-20 jobs before even getting shortlisted for interviews this year)
-Papers I’d been working on for months on end getting rejected by the only journals I wanted to publish in. (May not seem like a big deal to most people, but publishing is essential in my chosen career)
-Visa issues that felt a lot like being rejected or shunned by the state for being an outsider.
I won’t even get into the more personal stuff. I’m sure you’ll have plenty examples of your own. It stings, right?
But why is rejection so upsetting, humiliating, demoralising? Is it because we didn’t get what we wanted? Is it because we focused all our time and energy into something only to get ‘nothing’ in return? Is it because rejection tells us something about our flaws? That we just aren’t up to standard?
Perhaps. But there’s a couple of things I’ve taken from the experience of rejection which I suppose have allowed me to not see it as the most terrible possible thing to happen to me.
First thing to get out of the way – it’s important to remember that whether you did or did not do something to warrant rejection, rejection is in a way not up to us in the first place. Call it a case of bad luck or undesired luck if you will. The negative aspect of this is that no matter how hard you work, difficult circumstances beyond your control can render the fruits of your labour moot (hello, Covid-19). Even the most competent person is not immune to bad luck, which may seem to us like something of an injustice. The nasty side of this is that it can make us bitter – if our hard work doesn’t pay off because of some seemingly arbitrary thing, why bother? And this resignation self-perpetuates – it seems to us we are stuck in a cycle of bad luck, so we are stuck in it.
But the possible bright side to this, and the thing we tend to forget, is that nobody is immune to good luck either. We probably tend to underplay this latter fact for a couple of reasons: firstly, because we like to think we are always responsible, rather than merely lucky, for the good things that happen to us; secondly, because success that is mostly a result of good luck doesn’t seem praiseworthy or anything to boast about – it may seem distasteful, for example, to be proud of something you achieved not because of a special talent but rather due to a fortuitous series of events. But look – I think a good thing just is a good thing first of all, and we have a sense of what that means to us, and whether the good thing is good in a morally praiseworthy fashion is something further we can think about.
The thing is, we make our choices, but we are partially just vehicles of Fortune. This means that if we are at risk of getting the bad end of a deal, we are often not to blame at all for it. And it means that even when we get the good end of a deal, it might not seem praiseworthy that we get it. I must say I am personally guilty of reading my good and bad luck in extreme ways – if something bad happens I tend to blame myself entirely for it, and when something good happens I tend to dismiss it as a fluke or a freak accident (I often narrativise my successes as “miracles”, for instance).
But we needn’t dwell on these implications too much. We are partially responsible for some things, and partially not responsible for others. What we should take away from this is that we are at the very least not fully to blame for the bad (or good!) things that come our way, so our tendencies to obsess over our own competence or lack thereof is just that – a kind of obsession. Luck will laugh in everyone’s face – both at the person who lacks the confidence to trust that rejection is not entirely their fault, and at the person who is so arrogant they believe they deserved not to get rejected. Luck can align with us when we least expect it, and be nowhere to be found when we need it the most. So I think it’s sensible to take up the spirit of luck, so to speak, when reflecting on things like rejection, which can seem so visceral and personal to us.
Having said all this, I want to go through how I would manage rejection. The first thing is that, well, rejection is just a rejection. It’s not The Rejection. The latter is just what it feels like sometimes. But we ought to resist the idea that it’s the final word. The world we live in is finite, but not static – nothing is forever, and neither is whatever “bad thing” you think gets compounded, sealed, and locked into fate by rejection. This is because either you, or the world, can and will change. And that change can happen in surprising and unexpected ways. Moreover, we just can’t anticipate all the ways that we, or the world, might change – that mystery is the beauty and hope of it!
For every time we see a lost opportunity as a “failure”, we could also narrativise it as a different kind of opportunity – an opportunity to learn, adjust, practice, become open to alternatives, and also redirect what we value and how we value things. It really sucks not to get the thing you thought your heart was set on. But your value as a person, and your future outcomes, don’t necessarily hinge on that one opportunity on which you psychologically staked your entire life’s worth – they rarely do.
The glamour associated with not being rejected is actually overstated as well. There’s a lot we can gain from rejection if we can get past the pain. We can, for example, find out where we are going ‘wrong’, by taking feedback seriously. This can be a good thing – there’s something humble and unselfish about the act of taking other people’s opinion’s into account and really caring about it (regardless of whether they are right or wrong). So if a rejection can help cultivate opportunities for us to exercise that kind of humility, all the better for our sensitivity and attentiveness to our effect on others, and others’ perception of us. I mean, we are probably more impervious to other people’s opinions and too stubborn about our own than we’d like to admit. I know it seems sexy to embody a persona that is immune to other people’s opinions and to be able to say that you got where you are today despite all the naysayers. And I understand that the world is full of bullshit and that it’s hard to filter out the fluff. But maybe if five, ten different people are giving you similar feedback, which form the basis of some kind of ‘rejection’, perhaps we should really start thinking about what we might do differently the next time, and that it’s a good thing somebody pointed it out to us. I actually have a personal example of a teacher who was honest enough to tell me why my work wasn’t up to par, but at the time I just didn’t want to hear it and only took away the feeling of resentment towards them. Looking back, I can see that they were totally right, and that if I could only get past the injury to my ego, their criticisms would actually have helped better prepare me for future projects important to me.
We can also learn about the gap between our skills and abilities and what the world wants from them. Often a rejection tells us something about that gap, rather than anything about our qualities. For example, if I can’t find a job as an English teacher in an English-speaking country, what that tells me is that the particular environment in which I am looking to exercise my skills is not particularly accommodating for what I have to offer, not that there is something actually wrong with my skills. There is just a gap between what I can do vs. what the world wants from what I can do. Perhaps that gap between what I have to offer and what the world is like will change if I move to a locality that isn’t saturated with English-speakers. How our abilities get valued is variable and relative to particularised contexts – we don’t live in a vacuum where our abilities have exactly X value. Covid-19 makes that point salient: because the world right now is focused on getting a newly spreading virus under control, how different industries and people’s skills get valued has shifted radically in the meantime. And it will continue to change as the states of affairs in the world evolves further.
As a person with an “arts and humanities” background, I get that it’s scary. I was already living in a world where what I do is maybe not considered universally valuable, and I’d been prepared for the worst. When I finished my PhD, I knew that I had a mountain of obstacles ahead of me and that I’d have to accept the countless ‘No’s coming my way. The point is, while we should be diligent and reasonable in our own expectations about closing this gap, there’s no particular reason to think that our skills couldn’t have great use elsewhere, at a later time, or that they could not be transferrable/repurposed. And if that doesn’t seem possible, it still doesn’t take away from the fact that you’ve committed yourself to something, which seems to me pretty important in itself as an experience to have in life. And so it’s not the worst thing if rejection can give us real-time, real-world insight into how receptive the world is to the things we can offer it. With that insight, we can plan better, we can plan differently, we can try again.
Rejection is also a way to discern and discriminate between things we should and shouldn’t be invested in for our mental and emotional well-being. If a person keeps rejecting you, for example, it’s a pretty good indicator that you’ll get more out of other people, and that it’s not a relationship that will develop further right this moment. Sounds pretty obvious, but being filtered out even when it’s against our own wishes is actually better than being strung along under false pretences, no? Again, I realise this is not a very sexy idea – perhaps some of us entertain the fantasy that we’ll get the thing we covet if only we tried hard enough! But sometimes, it’s just not worth it. It’s ok to get tired of trying and trying to get the thing that you really want, not get it, still want it, but give it up nonetheless – if only just to keep your sanity intact. Rejection can act as a boundary in this sense – it can indicate to us that we have done all that we can, but also that we have done just about enough, and that enough is where our pursuit should come to an end. Rejection can make us take stock of our health; a ‘No’ does not have to be a condemnation of who you are, but rather a ‘This is neither a healthy nor productive target of your time’.
I’m really not one to ‘see the positive’ in everything – I am actively against the idea that relentless or uncritical positivity is actually helpful to anybody. But I do hope that in these trying and exceptional times we can forgive ourselves and understand that we are tangled in a complex web of forces – some within, and some beyond our control – when the world says ‘No’ to us.