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On Rejection

It’s April, which means that soon-to-be college graduates everywhere are searching, interviewing, and adding that last little tweak to their resumes.  Meanwhile high school seniors have been hoping for the thick envelope, and so many have gotten the thin one. Professors and supervisors have been writing recommendation letter after recommendation letter. While some of these students have been overjoyed to hear back positive news about the next step of their five-year plans, many have felt that wave of disappointment that comes from having your aspirations dashed and being sent back to the figurative drawing board.

Today I opened an email and read the bio of the person who got a job I had applied for. I received the actual rejection from the job last week, but since I’ve been volunteering with this organization for over three years, I’m on all of their email lists. So when they sent out their latest organizational update, I received a confirmation of who they preferred over me.

It’s often said that rejection builds character, that it makes you tougher. But little time is spent discussing just how demoralizing it is. You are told to move on, that the pool was really competitive, that there were so many highly qualified candidates that they couldn’t accept everyone they wanted to. Oh, that and the reconciliatory yet hollow, “good luck with future endeavors.”

Sometimes you do everything right and things end up wrong. I picture running around a giant, swimming pool-sized bucket of “experience” and hastily pouring in “networking time,” “volunteer hours,” and “interpersonal skills,” then scrambling back to the rim to push over the barrel labeled “social media proficiency.” Desperately wishing that eventually it’ll be enough for the path you envision for yourself.

Speaking of social media, there is no traditional Facebook status or tweet for the rejection letters. There is no chorus of friends and family to help you handle the hurt of feeling inadequate. You have to reveal your shame to people one by one, bearing the “oh I’m so sorry’s” and the “it’s really their losses,” while understanding that many people are just waiting for the conversation to move to sunnier territory. What doesn’t exist as often is a loved one who will sit with you and simply feel the pain of rejection, the stiff coldness of being told that your hard work and efforts were not enough, the implication that you are not enough. I consider myself unbelievably lucky to have people in my life who are willing to do just that.

A colleague of mine told me that the world is full of rejection, and that childhoods of praise and admiration do not prepare us for how many times we would be told that we’re not right, not enough. Maybe instead of lavishing praise on students from a young age, building up their confidence so that one day it can be torn down, we should do as Angela Duckworth (renowned Psychologist) advocates and make an education system that builds grit and endurance into students. Toughen up, move on, don’t look back.

It feels right to spend some time to grieve the loss of a future you constructed in your mind. Just like it feels right to spend time relishing in the celebratory air when success happens. The alternative, pushing it away and refusing to pay the sadness any attention, feels like a betrayal of the all the effort that was put into trying for it.

Of course life goes on. Triumphs are temporary, good times don’t last (but neither do bad ones), and the roller coaster races onward in the midst of tragedy and loss. Of course you have to pick yourself up, toughen up, and move forward. Of course I write this note from a platform of incredible privilege and successes, many of which were not my doing but were the consequence of sheer luck and circumstance. But that doesn’t stop the rejection from hurting. That doesn’t take away the value of taking a moment,doing what you need to do to decompress, and feeling the inimitable frustration and sadness of being evaluated on your strength of character and being told “no.” You don’t continue walking on a sprained ankle, you nurse it, address it, and give it time to heal. Yes, something else will come along, life goes on, something even better may happen. But first, I need a moment.

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