Battle Hymn of the Rejected

03/03/2017 08:19 pm ET

I still have the first rejection letter I received as a writer, from a book publisher: “Dear Mr. Schlimm: Unfortunately . . . Regretfully . . . We are unable . . . For reasons we are sure you will understand, we cannot . . .”

I still have the first rejection letter I received as an educator, from the first job I applied for after earning my duel Secondary teaching certifications in English and Speech Communications and a Master’s degree in Education from Harvard University. I had applied for the position of English teacher at my high school alma mater. The letter reads: “We have decided to hire a candidate that better suits our needs.”

And, I still have the first rejection letter I received as an artist, from our local arts council gallery where I sought to exhibit my Primitive Americana Folk Art—two pieces of which had just recently been sold at auction in New York City to benefit the Twin Towers Orphan Fund. The local arts council gallery letter reads: “Your submitted artwork was not approved by our jury.”

Each of these rejections was a door slammed shut on my knuckles.

I could take you point-by-point through each rejection, giving you the back-story, outlining the politics and personal biases involved (especially in the last two). I could whine and moan and begrudge. I could ballyhoo, Woooeee is me!

But truth be told, I owe the folks behind each rejection above the biggest hugs of gratitude. Regardless of their motivations for rejecting me, those letters and the larger experiences they represent from early in my career have now become badges of honor for me.

Have a door slammed shut on one hand (OUCH!), open a window with the other hand (WOW!).

Each rejection above, and the dozens that followed over the years (all of which I have archived in voluminous files), sent me in new directions, toward other goals and opportunities. Toward improved and ever-evolving versions of myself. Toward gifts I never knew were waiting inside me to be discovered.

I could write a whole book just on the art and benefits, and blessings, of being rejected:

Rejection does not mean STOP! It means, GO! Go down this road instead of that one.

Rejection does not mean you’re unqualified or talentless. It means, Take a new risk. Dare to be rejected again and again, until you achieve what you want.

Rejection does not mean you’re a loser or somehow strange. It means, Be even more original, even more outside the box. Color outside the lines as often as you can.

My “Battle Hymn of the Rejected” begins with Jesus’ own verse: “The stone the builders rejected has become the corner stone.”

Be that stone!

Instead of letting that first publisher make me doubt myself as a writer, I sent my book manuscript—a how-to about collecting autographs—to another publisher, then another and another. More than three-dozen rejections later, a small academic press said, “Yes, we’ll publish your first book!” That was 17 books ago.

Instead of letting my own high school alma mater make me doubt myself as an educator, I kept pounding the pavement, submitting resumes everywhere. That led me to a university, which said, “Yes, we want you to teach for us!” That has been followed by many more far-ranging projects involving students of all ages and grade levels, including my book Stand Up! about the world’s most incredible young activists; my university commencement address titled “The Road to YES is Paved with Many NOs”; and students who have used my cookbooks and my memoir Five Years in Heaven in their classrooms.

And, instead of letting that local arts council gallery make me doubt myself as an artist, I continued to create, imagine, and share—most often donating my artworks to benefit charities and adding drawings as personalized inscriptions in the books I’ve written. That initial rejection letter now sets next to the “Heart in the Arts” Award, which that same arts council gallery, under new leadership, gave to me just a few years ago. And the first major installation of my 18-foot-long participatory art piece titled THE SMILE THAT CHANGED THE WORLD (is yours) recently took place at The Westmoreland Museum of American Art.

Those rejections didn’t slow me down. They propelled me forward. They allowed me to fling open the window and sing for all to hear, “My eyes have seen the glory . . .”

Those experiences allowed me to add my own verse to the “Battle Hymn of the Rejected”:

I AM A WRITER, I AM AN EDUCATOR, AND I AM AN ARTIST! HEAR ME ROAR!

However, in the end, triumphing over rejection—the whole “success is the best revenge” mantra—isn’t the only goal here. In fact, I’d slot it at #2 on the list. There is actually an even greater gift that comes when you take rejection for what it is, learn from it, and then flip it on its head.

I also still have the first note I received from a reader about the first piece of writing I ever had published, back in the 1990s. I had written an article for my hometown newspaper about my family’s annual 4th of July parade tradition. I was so proud to see that article in print!

The anonymous, handwritten note, sent to me along with a torn-out clipping of the article, was technically my first review, or what I like to think of as my first official piece of fan mail. It was short and to the point: “Who the hell cares?????”

You see, among the many blessings of rejection is also the unique knack it has for keeping us humble.

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