At some point in your life, you have been, or will be, rejected. You apply to a school, a job, a publication, a grant, a fellowship, a role, or some other dearly sought prize, and it doesn’t work out. A rejection can feel devastating, and at the same time can lead you in new directions and to new opportunities you could never have predicted.
When I began to invite colleagues and students to participate in the first version of Reflections on Rejections, everyone was intrigued by the idea of a collection of rejection letters and the recipients’ reflections. Surprisingly often, a particular rejection popped immediately into their minds. They knew exactly which letter or what experience they wanted to contribute. It had stuck with them -- sometimes for decades. The experience of rejection was so personal, so powerful, that it made an indelible impression, inspired a reconsideration of their goals or values, or prompted a sharp turn in their life path.
Although everyone I spoke with had a story about a rejection, not everyone had an actual letter or other physical relic of the experience. As it turns out, rejections come in many forms: not just in a letter, but via email, on the phone, or simply rejection-by-excruciating-silence. Furthermore, many of us simply are not keepers -- we are shredders, tossers, rippers, burners, deleters, and, well, people who lose things. So this collection includes reflections both with and without an actual rejection letter.
How we respond to a failure or rejection emerges in these pages as one of the most important skills we learn in our lives. It requires first that we feel bad: really really bad. That part usually seems to come pretty naturally. But how to feel really really bad is the part that we learn. We learn to recognize our bad feelings as an indication that we care, we have high standards and high hopes, and we expect a lot of ourselves and of the world -- rather than assuming that we are hopelessly untalented or unworthy. We learn to comfort ourselves, and accept comfort from others, and just plain stand it for a while -- rather than running away or acting out. We learn to find strength and faith in dark times to nourish our resolve and resilience -- rather than losing hope and giving up. And finally, we learn to actively seek out the invaluable information and lessons to be gleaned from even a truly awful experience -- rather than getting defensive or dejected or derailed.
Contributors to this latest, online version include some of the original participants: faculty, staff, students, and alumni reflecting on their rejections from schools, jobs, grants, and other prizes. My colleagues and I also invited several new participants, and several videos are now part of the collection. Every one of the contributors has my deepest thanks and greatest respect for sharing their stories. Their insights are courageous, funny, thoughtful, and amazingly generous.
I have sent them each an acceptance letter.
Abigail Lipson, Director
Bureau of Study Counsel, Harvard University