Graduation season is now upon us and you know what that means: Before America's bright-eyed college seniors can collect diplomas and toss caps, they'll be subjected to all kinds of commencement speech wisdom. For instance:
"My favorite animal is the turtle. The reason is that in order for the turtle to move, it has to stick its neck out." --Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Trinity College, 2004
"It doesn't matter that your dream came true if you spent your whole life sleeping." --Director/Producer Jerry Zucker, University of Wisconsin, 2003
"You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition." --Alan Alda, Connecticut College, 1980
My advice, not that you asked, is this: Go out there and get rejected.
This shouldn't be hard. Today, the chances of a new grad with zero work experience landing a job they actually want are profoundly grim. As Obama put it in his May 1 commencement speech at the University of Michigan: "When you leave here today, you will search for work in an economy that is still emerging from the worst crisis since the Great Depression."
That's not discouraging -- that's liberating! If the outcome will, in all likelihood be the same, why not make a wild, big-hearted play for the job of your dreams rather than fetching coffee for the guy who assists the guy who makes the PowerPoints at a company you couldn't care less about? In the hunt for this dream job, you may well rack up reams of rejection letters. But rejection letters are the new black. In fact, I'd wager that more rejection letters are being received in this country than at any time in its 234-year history -- rejections for big jobs and lowly internships, for mortgages and small business loans, for grant money, for health insurance, for credit cards.
And then there's this: Your rejection letters will put you in damn fine company. Have you seen the letter Andy Warhol received from the Museum of Modern Art rejecting his gift of a drawing due to "severely limited gallery and storage space"? What about the 1962 letter from Jimi Hendrix's commanding officer recommending that he be immediately discharged from the army because he "can't carry on an intelligent conversation"? The gifted writers who penned the screenplay for Casablanca were told that their work wouldn't make the cut because it was "unacceptably sex suggestive." Gertude Stein received a mocking rejection letter from a publisher that read, in part, "Only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one."
So as this year's crop of tassel-flippers begins scouring LinkedIn, CareerBuilder, and Monster.com; as they pore over want ads on Craigslist; talk to recruiters; and dial-up their parents' connections, I say set your sights on something crazy-high. Oh, and the rejection letters you'll get? You'll want to save those: Years from now, when you look back at the strange path that brought you to whatever perch/Aeron/throne upon which you will no-doubt sit, you'll be happy you did. How do I know this? Because for the last few years, I've been collecting other people's rejection letters. Form letters and passionate scrawls, as well as emails, text messages, and Facebook posts. These are letters that dashed dreams, ended relationships, killed careers. Every person who lent me a letter was glad they'd held on to it -- proud, even -- because it reminded them of something. It proved that, at one point in their life, they took a risk, shot high. And, yeah, maybe they shot a bit wide, too, but looking back, who cares? There were also those people whose true, rippling genius went unseen. Imagine how Warhol must have clucked every time he looked at that snotty thanks-but-no-thanks letter from MOMA. So save the letters. Save them to look back on. Save them to gloat. Save them because soon enough, instead of receiving rejection letters, you'll be the one who's writing them.