In early 2001, the medical magazine I edited, Hippocrates, was killed by its publisher (talk about rejection!). I was offered a lateral-move kind of job in the company but reasoned that this was as good a time as any to take a run at a science journalism fellowship I’d been thinking about for years. The fellowship promised a year of immersion in the field with a handful of journalists from around the world who wanted to hone their craft, network, and recharge. When I looked at who’d won the fellowship in previous years I realized that I was something of a long shot – I was much more of an editor than a journalist. I also knew (though I wasn’t fully admitting it to myself) that I didn’t have a clear idea about what, exactly, I hoped to accomplish should I get accepted – beyond that it would surely be a fun year, and it would buy me time to figure out what to do next.
When the rejection letter arrived I was both not surprised and hurt. The hurt part is simple enough. Who likes to be rejected? The not-surprised part is more complex. Though I pulled out the stops on my application – calling former winners for advice, making contact with faculty in the program, recruiting my best references, crafting my best guess at a pitch-perfect essay – I knew at some level that I was trying too hard. Though I was truly interested in the program, my application was more well-crafted than authentic. I suspect they picked up on that – and indeed in his rejection the program director said he hoped that the process of applying “has helped clarify where you want to go with your career…,” a comment I always took to mean “we know that you know that your heart wasn’t really in this!”
I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and landed a job as an editor at Harvard Business Review. It’s a great fit and a terrific job. Thinking back to my application and interviews, I recall something distinctly different about my approach to this job: I told them what I really thought. I told them, for example, that the article I’d been given as an edit test was so flawed it shouldn’t be published (they published it, of course), and that my crowning achievement in my previous job was to shut down a major project my boss had championed. Those may have been risky admissions, but I think one reason I got this job was that I wanted it enough to abandon the script.