I don’t watch football much. I once had an opportunity to meet and work with a former pro quarterback and get to know him and his friends pretty well, and I was truly saddened by the low quality of life and health they faced.
I felt it appropriate then, that with the idea to contemplate “rejection” as part of the MBA experience in this evening’s blog, that I paused to watch the thrilling second half of the AFC Championship Game between a team that always seems to figure out how to win, the Patriots, and a team that has not been in a Super Bowl in 50 years, the Kansas City Chiefs.
Because, much like the Chiefs, I tend to see myself always losing to the Patriots of the world. That somehow there seem to be these forces that allow others access to opportunities, fame, and success that I don’t receive.
And yet, there is perhaps a worthy metaphor in that the loser of this game will not lose the quality of his life nearly as much as the un-regulated paths of his predecessors. As someone who actually suffers from a personal health problem inherited from a predecessor, and for whom the expected survival of this problem has been incredibly and exponentially enhanced due to modern technology, this is actually perhaps less metaphor and more just plain reality.
I bring all of this up because I have been rejected a handful of times recently from summer MBA internship applications. I am struggling with this, and I wanted to understand why. I think I am less struggling with the rejection itself, and more the manner of it. The “not even getting an interview” rejection, the type that renders you perhaps a little more hopeless than the oh-so-close attempt of a millionaire 23-year-old.
Because I am not 23. Indeed I am not 33 (and that’s as far as I will go in revealing my exact age :-).)
And I have this sense that I do this to myself, somehow. That I have always enjoyed being a bit of an outsider, a bit of my own path trodden. I rejected two business schools with higher rankings than the one I currently attend (with good financial, personal, and academic reasons but… still.) When I received one of my current internship rejections, a classmate noted how I wasn’t going to fit into their competitive culture anyway (she perhaps had more choice words than that, but you get my drift.)
So, then. Is rejection just the world’s gift to you to figure out what you truly value? To make you ask tough questions?
God I hope so.
Because it is a universal truth, right? We all get rejected. It’s like our collective dirty secret.
So what do the scholars I turn to for things like this have to say? Those business minds or business-adjacent minds in scholarly reviews? I google “Stanford Social Innovation Review Rejection.”
I get their submission guidelines as my first hit. Not exactly the inspiration I was looking for. And yet…
“SSIR will acknowledge receipt of your proposal within one to two weeks. SSIR editors will then review the proposal, and that process can take up to two months. We respond to all proposals, but we are not able to provide substantive feedback on each one that we receive. If we think that your proposal to write an article has promise, we will ask you to write it. Please note: An invitation to submit an article draft does not constitute acceptance of the article.”
An invitation to submit an article draft does not constitute acceptance of the article.
I don’t often feel that I am invited into spaces where the elite gather. The best schools nor the Silicon Valley organizations that recruit from them. I worry that my not being “invited to submit”, or, to translate, not “being recruited on the UC Davis campus because we are not a Top-15 school”, is the reason for my rejection. But, of course, being invited does not equal being accepted.
And, unpacking the word “accepted”, it gets at a bigger theme I’m intrigued about in terms of the nature of rejection. As Groucho Marx famously retorts…
In order to truly feel rejected, you have to desire something. And in order to be “accepted” they have to desire you back. So if it is the school you chose that is holding you back, then perhaps you would never be truly “accepted”. I’m not, repeat NOT saying that Google employees would hold their noses at a UC Davis MBA grad, that’s far too reductive and a totally ungrounded aspersion (and I have actually applied to Google and have not been accepted nor rejected yet.) I am saying that there is a person who chooses Stanford and a person who chooses UC Davis. It may not be an actual choice, in the truest sense. I was rejected from the Stanford MBA program. But that rejection is, perhaps, the result of a series of choices throughout my life. That in some way we all choose, and refuse, our clubs by the millions of choices that make us who we are and where we are.
I feel like I’m making sense, at least a little there. If I was having a conversation with you instead of writing a blog I bet you could rephrase what I said back to me and we could really get somewhere ;-).
And I acknowledge that many of our so-called “choices” in life are a result of forces out of our control (like, growing up in an impoverished neighborhood or challenges faced by women, people of color, and other minorities that I am not a part of). I get that. And that is an important experience of rejection, one that I am not sure I can or should speak to, as it is not a very large element of my experience. But I did want to acknowledge it here before moving on.
“Rejection Harvard Business Review” google search works a lot better.
Ron Ashekenas writes in “Rejection is Critical for Success” that “our basic human need to belong causes these incidents to stick with us through the years” and that it leads to “entitlement” and “resignation.” Within organizations, he writes “leaders need to encourage a more conscious and healthy toleration of rejection. While all employees should feel comfortable offering ideas, raising issues, and making observations — they should do so with the knowledge that they may be rejected. If they get discouraged or angry about not having their ideas accepted, they might shut down and stop contributing. Similarly, if employees feel so self-important that the organization should never turn them down, their sense of entitlement will make it difficult to drive constructive change.”
As to the employees being potentially rejected, Nicole Torres asks “what makes one person more resilient than another in the face of rejection?” Lauren Howe, a doctoral student in social psychology at Stanford (yup, irony not lost there) and her professor Dr. Carol Dweck explored what makes people more likely to link rejection to their sense of self.
They described the challenges that people with “fixed mindsets” (a belief that personality traits don’t change) have with rejection over people with “growth mindsets” (a belief that personality traits are malleable). No surprise there. But they and I were surprised to learn “those differences emerge in the smaller condition,” like simply being “told to imagine how they would respond if they met someone at a party, felt a ‘spark,’ and then later overheard the person saying that they weren’t interested.”
“One reason for it might be that if someone rejects you without even getting to know you first, you might wonder if there is some quality about you that is so obviously undesirable that a virtual stranger would say, ‘No, no thanks, not interested,’” Howe noted.
Ah, there’s the rub. That’s exactly how I feel. In my case, it’s my 10+ years of working as a theater director and, more recently as a film actor. This industry famously involves a LOT of rejection. And the good news is that, in order to survive, you learn to work up a thick skin. But the bad news is that when you are transitioning into something new it leaves you with the immense weight of having spent a lifetime questioning what about you made that opportunity always seemingly go to someone else. You fight the bitterness. You fight to keep up that “growth mindset” instead of falling into a fixed mindset you see in so many around you – that the world is just unfair.
And when you inevitably “flunk out” (which is not the way you choose to look at what happened most of the time, but sometimes you can’t help yourself) and leave the harsh, unrelenting, and unsustainably paying industry, and try to convince the world that those skills translate and the business leadership in running your own theater company is meaningful and relevant…
…it’s hard not to fall into a cycle where you believe that everything you have done in your life thus far has just amounted to the equivalent of a shrug and a “no, no thanks, not interested” before you even have the chance to tell them why.
Those are my bad days. They are very few. But I wanted to share them. Because actually, I’m not being rejected right now. I have a new part-time job that makes me feel very accepted and allows me to invest in my “growth mindset”. I love my MBA program and feel that it is opening up all sorts of doors and that it has “accepted” me in all facets of the word, and its a club I do want to belong to, even if it would want someone like me to be a member.
And I have to caveat that this post makes me feel a little whiney. And a little guilty. Like, who the hell am I to expect being “accepted” and to be upset when I’m not. I much prefer to be the guy giving advice to my peers, reminding them of all their successes in the face of this one rejection they just got, and delivering words of wisdom like “Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience.” That’s some Ralph Waldo Emerson for you. I’m the kind of guy who espouses that kind of stuff.
But the final thought on rejection I’ll offer here?
It’s easier when it happens to someone else.