The Gifts of Rejection 🎁
This week I've been thinking a lot about rejection, and no, I do not feel anywhere near as pitiful as that sounds.😂
I started thinking about rejection during a session with a coaching client who wants to get back on the job market but hasn't worked up the courage yet. As we addressed her concerns, it became clear that the fear of rejection was holding her back. Since rejection is likely to happen when job hunting, I didn't try to give her the false assurance that she's unlikely to be rejected, because statistics.🤷🏾♀️ If you apply for enough jobs, some are most likely gonna come back as a no.
Instead of platitudes, we began to unpack her views. I asked, "What are some of the gifts of rejection?"
First, she gave me a look that suggested I'm not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but as she thought about it, she perked up when sharing that rejection could help her become more resilient. This is absolutely true. Rejection can help us build resilience, the ability to bounce back from disappointments. As research has shown time and again, this is critical because resilience is a significant determinant of professional success, overall wellbeing, and health—both physical and mental.
In addition to building resilience, rejection has many more gifts to offer us. How do I know? Because rejection and I are intimately acquainted.
As someone who spent a decade fundraising for a non-profit organization, a large part of my job was submitting proposals and grant applications, building relationships with potential donors, pitching, and putting forward partnership ideas. When things came together, they came together beautifully; but the truth is for every yes, there were many nos along the way.
As an entrepreneur, that hasn't changed; I regularly submit proposals to clients, not all are accepted. So rejection is a regular companion. Like many of you, I have also experienced academic rejections, career rejections, and romantic rejections—the most painful of which remains my eighth-grade crush.😩
Don't get me wrong, while rejection and I are not strangers, I do not particularly enjoy it. I much prefer a yes to a no. Although, I once looked my eighth-grade crush up on Facebook and proceeded to thank sweet baby Jesus in a manger for not fulfilling the desires of my 13-year-old heart making me his missus, cause wow.🥴 This, ironically, is another gift of rejection: redirection. Whether it's a failed romance, not being admitted to your first-choice university, or being passed over for the job you wanted, rejection forces us to consider other options. It can be a catalyst for greater creativity and prompt us to consider what else could serve us better in the long run. Part of the reason it's difficult for us to see the gifts of rejection is that we tend to define rejection narrowly. We usually see it as a commentary or indictment on us as human beings and not as an assessment of our suitability for something. According to the good folks at Merriam-Webster, rejection is "to refuse to accept, consider, submit to, take for some purpose, or use." In other words, rejection is not always about the quality of who you are or what you bring; often, it's about how you fit into a particular role, space, or place. Now let me pause here and say that sometimes rejection, especially personal rejection, can hurt like hell. Instead of the rejection being about whether we are an appropriate fit for something, it can become an attack on us and our dignity. In fact, research shows that the pain we feel from parental or social rejection can be similar to that from a physical injury and can have harmful long-term effects. But to be clear, even if folks who are supposed to love us reject us, that doesn't necessarily say anything about us. That rejection, and the way it's carried out, can be a reflection of them and their brokenness. As Instagram once put it, "Sis, you can be the whole package but at the wrong address." How then do we recognize the gifts of rejection? We recognize rejection's gifts by viewing rejection as a powerful source of information, not an indicator of our worth.
As I wrote in "Embracing Discomfort," nothing grows in a comfort zone. Rejection can help us recognize when we've moved into our growth zone where success is not assured. When we apply for that stretch assignment and don't get it, it demonstrates that we are not stagnant but actively trying to move to our next level.
This became clear to me when as a university administrator, I encouraged a South African student to apply for a competitive scholarship program in the US, one that would give her a full scholarship to study for her master's degree. You can imagine my surprise when I didn't see her name on the list of applicants. Later, when I asked why she hadn't applied, she said, "I didn't think I would get in, so I didn't apply." She chose to stay in her comfort zone and do the selection committee's work, rejecting herself before anyone else could. Had she taken the risk, she may have been rejected, or she may have been rewarded, either way, she would have taken a step in the direction of her goals.
Rejection can also highlight the relevant skills, experience, or credentials we may need to acquire. One of the most powerful things we can do when we are rejected is to solicit feedback, not in a way that communicates entitlement, but in a manner that shows we have a growth mindset. This was the case with a brilliant friend of mine who was up for a promotion in an international organization. When she didn't get the job, she made inquiries. The feedback was that while she had great experience, in fields like international relations, for better or worse, credentials like master's degrees can matter, a lot. So what did she do with that feedback? She returned to school, earned an advanced degree, and proceeded to have incredible success on her own terms. If she had taken rejection as a sign that she wasn't good enough, she wouldn't have been able to learn from and later transform that experience.
Finally, rejection can indicate that a particular environment isn't one we're likely to thrive in. Suppose we're pursuing spaces where we are rejected because of our racial, gender, sexual, religious, or other identities. In that case, it can be a clear signal that we would be better off investing our time and talents in arenas that appreciate and affirm us. This type of rejection invites us to channel Auntie Maxine and reclaim our time. It's an invitation to keep looking for—or better yet create—forums that wholeheartedly accept all of who we are.
So I ask, what are the gifts that rejection has given you?
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