The Hidden Benefits of Rejection

04/10/2015 05:15 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

Last year I was rejected from a Harvard doctoral program. It was a three-year fully funded doctorate, and I had made it to the top 50 which means I'd been flown out to Cambridge for the interview, bought way too many maroon hats and sweatshirts and fallen in love with the whole idea just in time to be rejected.

And what happened over the next year blew me away.

I started receiving emails from people who'd been rejected as well and they told me how the articles had helped them get through it. I had close friends calling me for advice when they experienced a similar rejection.

And when I finally started to feel okay enough to share my rejection story with strangers I was amazed that they didn't laugh at me or think less of me like I thought they would. Instead they seemed to almost breathe a sigh of relief. It seemed sharing my rejection story gave them permission to open up about the hard work and rejection and failures behind their journey.

And that has been incredibly beneficial because most of those people were sharing their stories with me in interviews I've been doing for my next book about how to make a dream come true.

And you can bet rejection and failure are going to be a huge theme of the book. Because those are the stories we don't talk about enough. Sure we know J.K. Rowling was rejected by numerous publishers before the 8-year-old daughter of one convinced her dad to publish the first Harry Potter book. We love the famous Michael Jordan quotes about all the games he lost, all the shots he missed. But we fly by those facts with starry eyes towards the magic of the billion-dollar success afterwards.

Of course people like that would have persisted, we think, it's J.K. Rowling! It's Michael Jordan! Easy for them to keep going. They were super talented and they knew it.

But it's easy to forget that the protagonists of these stories didn't know the ending when they were pounding the pavement trying to see if anyone would want their art, would want what they have to offer.

Because we know how it all ends, it's easy to forget that they didn't. They couldn't have. When they're rejected they don't know that one day they're going to get their big break. They don't actually know that one day they're going to play in the Olympics or that there's going to be a roller coaster in Orlando based off the ideas in their head. Because those things weren't necessarily guaranteed. Action was required. A lot of action and persistence and rejection. All they could do was hope and work and keep knocking, knocking, knocking.

And that's not easy. In fact it's quite painful, which is why so few break through. Because no one would fault anyone for giving up at those moments. I don't think it's weak to give up at all. I think it's sane. It makes sense. And for some people that's enough. They tried. They don't want to try again. But for some of us, it's not enough. We must keep trying. Our dream is too important to us. We don't know how to not try.

As I've been working on this book I've been constantly questioning if I'm crazy for dreaming so big. When I started this project I secretly hoped that the stories of the 100 people I'd interview would encourage me that I'm not crazy. But just the opposite happened. I learned I am crazy! This is crazy! But that's what makes it so exciting and worthwhile, regardless of the outcome. Everyone I've interviewed was crazy at one point. They were going for something outside of their comfort zone. They reached for something beyond what was expected from "someone like them." They were crazy. And it worked.

There's more to the story of course, and that's what I'm working on as I get to turning these interviews into a book that will be all about your dream and how you can achieve it.

But in the meantime I'd had so many people express their post-rejection experiences with me lately that I wanted to share some of the hidden benefits with you in case you've recently gone through a brutal rejection -- maybe from graduate school, your dream undergraduate institution, a job, a fellowship, an audition or anything where you put your heart and soul on the line and heard the word "no."

The Hidden Benefits of Rejection

1. You grew.
The process of applying to Harvard was grueling and beautiful. Before I even applied I asked myself if I thought the process would be worth it even if I didn't get in, because I knew the probability of getting in, based on the average age of those accepted alone, would be unlikely.

I decided who I would become in the process of applying to Harvard could be worth it in and of itself. So I spent months re-learning geometry for the GRE, countless hours editing 15 drafts of my personal statement and sending it off to dozens of trusted mentors (including some ridiculously kind people who were currently in the Harvard doctoral program) and received their critiques and made adjustments. I also spent every morning and evening for months memorizing new GRE vocabulary words.

Even though I didn't get in, I still get a thrill when I'm reading and know what words like "interred" or "obstinate" mean.

I'm a book nerd, so while this kind of thing may not thrill you, I promise that the process you underwent to prepare for that thing that rejected you still grew you forward. You learned things. You gained skills. You now know more about this world, this process, this field. You probably learned something about yourself too. At the very least, you learned that you're capable of trying things and being brave.

Take some time to take stock of what you learned. What skills have you gained? What are you now better at doing because of the process you underwent? To what new goals and dreams can you apply what you've learned?

2. You get to re-evaluate.

If you listen closely to people's success stories you'll see that they're riddled with rejections. Sometimes they were rejected from things that would have taken them on a totally different path, one that in hindsight wouldn't have been as amazing as the one they took after the rejection(s).

I have a theory that rejection itself is what feeds awesome achievement, that in some ways really big dreams can't come true without it. Not only is rejection a sign that you're probably trying really hard and doing things outside of your comfort zone (two vital factors to making a dream come true) but it also provides you with an opportunity to evaluate what you really want and better clarify which step you should take next.

Not every rejection automatically makes this happen; the refinement that comes from evaluation requires a conscious decision to separate yourself from the rejection, look at it and learn from it. If you're willing to do that, the rejection offers a unique opportunity to ask yourself some of the following questions:

  • What do I really want?
  • Was this really my dream or was it someone else's?
    • Is there something I need to do to get better?
  • Ultimately where did I hope this opportunity would lead me? What did I want it to do for my life?
  • Are there other ways I can still get to that end goal without going through this particular door? Is there a proverbial window somewhere else?
  • Is this the thing I really want and is there an opportunity to try again?

If the thing you're rejected from is something you really want and it's something for which you can try again, then begin a process to do just that. But don't just re-submit your same application or do things exactly the same way without some evaluation. Albert Einstein defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." In some rejection situations it truly is just the subjective opinion of that person and your product might be just fine as is. Actors are often rejected for roles not because of a lack of acting skill but because they didn't have a "look" that the casting directors wanted for that character.

Don't worry about the things that are outside of your control. Instead, when you're ready (it's totally okay to take some time to grieve and cry over the rejection first) seek out your trusted mentors and friends and talk about the process and ask for feedback to see what you might need to change. If you're able, ask the person or people who "rejected" you if they can offer any feedback so that you can improve.

Be warned, this still will hurt, which is why so many people don't do it. When you do it, though, you set yourself apart and make it so much more likely for your dreams to come true.

Something I've learned from all these interviews is that no one gets to a place where feedback and rejection don't sting. It's what people do after the sting that sets them apart. It's not waiting until it doesn't hurt, but acting, changing and growing despite the hurt.

Those who move past rejection successfully consciously try to separate themselves from the work. They try to train themselves to know that when they're receiving the feedback it's not about them, it's just about the thing, the application, the performance -- the work is not you. The application, the interview, the audition is not you. It was just something you created, a work, a performance, and just because that might need improvement doesn't mean you are any less or that you personally are somehow fundamentally inadequate. That's just not true, even though at first you will feel exactly that deep down to your bones.

After you've grieved and evaluated, if you come to find that that opportunity really isn't something you want to try again, then you can begin to explore and think about what else you can do. One great first step is to find someone who is at the place you dream about. Tell them about your story and ask for advice. Is there another avenue you can try? Something you haven't thought of yet?

Solo activities are also great for evaluation: journal, take a walk, take a drive to somewhere you've never been, visit a garden or museum (or anything you personally find really interesting) by yourself. Don't put any pressure to come up with anything or solve all your life problems. Just walk. Enjoy. Breathe.

But in the end, don't reevaluate alone. Don't take everyone's advice, of course, but seek out those you really trust and respect who know you best, as well as people who really know the industry or the world from which you were recently rejected. Take it all in and relish the opportunity you have to actually think about your next step. The evaluation process alone will put you way ahead of most.

3. You get another chance.
After you've evaluated, if you find you do really want to (and can) try again, go for it!

I had one incredible person in the Harvard doctoral program tell me that he had a friend who applied three times before getting in. However, after my own re-evaluation process I realized that the doctoral program itself wasn't my dream. My real dream revolves around breaking barriers and inspiring those without a lot of power or privilege, and I thought someone like me getting into Harvard would have done that. And of course, it would have!

But it wasn't the only way.

What I did do is apply for a Harvard Institute a few months later where I spent a week living in Boston and attending all-day classes on campus with a Harvard professor, learning about the issue in education that moved me the most, the achievement gap. It was heaven and I got to wear my Harvard sweatshirts without feeling like a complete idiot.

When I was there I even had the head of that doctoral program tell me to apply again! However, I knew it wasn't actually right for me. Because just a few weeks before I'd had the idea for my next book.

That idea literally sprung up from a well of complete and utter turmoil (another hidden benefit to rejection -- sometimes it might lead you towards an idea even more closely aligned with your dreams). There I was curled up on a bathroom floor, the nasty voice inside my head had taken over, physically crushing me into a fetal position, as I wailed out tears of self-hate and hopelessness.

And then somewhere, somehow, the kinder voice spoke up and said: You are a dreamer. Don't stop dreaming. Don't stop trying. This is who you are. Running away from it won't work. Just be. And try. And breathe. It's going to be okay. You are going to be okay. You have something to give. Don't let this stop you.

You too have another chance. Even if whatever specific thing you were rejected from doesn't offer another opportunity to try again, it doesn't mean you can't still get to the place you hoped that thing would get you to. There might be an even better way! This is not over, and in fact, it's just begun.

You can also celebrate the fact that the rejection gets you into an exclusive club of people who try hard things (rejection party at my house, woo!). And if you keep going after the rejection, the club gets even more exclusive and amazing.

4. You get to help others.
The best part about the rejection club is that you get the honor and joy of using your experience to help newcomers.

When you've been through something hard, something interesting happens -- you become uniquely armed with an experience that allows you to empathize with and help others in a way no one else can.

While you definitely don't want to make someone else's rejection all about you, sharing your own story with them helps them see that they're not alone. You're also able to put yourself in their shoes and remember what you needed to hear at that time.

Listen first and notice what stage they're at in the rejection. Don't just start offering advice or tell them it's going to be fine, unless they're at a farther along stage or definitively asking you for advice. Just use your intuition based on what you experienced. Listen to them first. Ask questions about how they feel. Maybe even ask them some of the questions in hidden benefit number two. Then share your story and what worked for you, without assuming that what worked for you will definitely work for them. Just give them the story to consider and weigh against their own journey.

If you are reading this because you just went through a brutal rejection, know that one day this horrible feeling can transform into something good. You will be able to relate to people in a new way that will make them so grateful for you and make you swell with joy when you realize your experience helped someone else.

In the deepest darkest moments of grief over your rejection, remind yourself that you are not alone, that this is normal and that this experience doesn't have to be a waste. You know something new about rejection that you didn't know before. And if you can continue to move forward despite it, you are going to be a hero one day to those who need your gift and those who'll need a shoulder to cry on when they are rejected.

And if you need a shoulder to cry on right now, I want to leave you with this:

This rejection is not personal. It's okay if it feels personal. It's okay to cry. It's okay to yell. It's okay to vent and scream and blubber. Let yourself feel it. But whatever you do don't let it feed that nasty voice inside your head. This rejection says nothing about you. Nothing! It says something about them. You are not this rejection. You are more than it, and it might play a beautiful and important role in your life, leading you somewhere even better, or teaching you something that might make your dream happen next time, or the next. Keep going and don't let this keep you from shining. Learn from it, but don't let it ruin you. Don't let it make you hide or dim a little bit of yourself because you're afraid of getting rejected again. No one would blame you for doing so. It's what everything in your body is telling you to do. But fight it. Because we need your art, we need your gifts, we need your dream.

Thank you for trying. Thank you for caring. Thank you for doing something that got you rejected. Thank you for being brave. I hope you try again. It's okay to give up on things, opportunities, even dreams. Just never, never, give up on you.