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Companies & Industries

Lessons from the Rejection Jar


In today's job market, recent grads can expect a good share of rejection. That's not a bad thing

Throughout high school and most of college I kept a "rejection jar," which I stuffed with the scraps of every "we're sorry to inform you" note I'd ever received and sometimes even quotes from particularly harsh or dismissive critics I'd encountered. My volleyball coach, for instance, used our one-on-one post-season wrapup simply to tell me I was the weakest athlete the strength coach had ever worked with, including the cheerleaders. I'm pretty sure that one made it in there.

The jar, however twisted and adolescent, served as motivation. And it did, on occasion, prove quite effective. To prove my trainer and coach wrong, I secretly worked out like a fiend on my own time and then helped lead my scrawny underdog basketball team to a Top 10 finish in the state tournament the next year. So while rejection is never fun, it can serve a purpose.

Today I've encountered many young people entering the workforce who have a similarly charged relationship with rejection, but for slightly different reasons. Rather than taking my bring-it-on approach to slights, they often seem wounded and almost passive when it comes to dealing with disappointments. I sometimes wonder if perhaps they didn't have the benefit of getting a good dollop of rejection early on.

Cultivating Resilience

Still, they're bright and enthusiastic, and have many attributes you'd want in a quality employee. They're eager. They're diligent. And, yes, they are even willing to stay those extra hours.

So, as someone who has benefited immensely from every door that was slammed in my face, I find myself wanting to help them. Because it usually takes several tries before the right door opens. Life is really is an odds game in some sense and this is why I feel it's so important to develop traits like resilience and resourcefulness.

If this generation of twentysomethings—the Millennials—has an Achilles' heel, it's this: They haven't heard "no" often enough. "This has been a generation that has been coddled and cajoled and rewarded for breathing," says career coach and author D.A. Hayden. Along with partner Michael Wilder, Hayden founded early-career consulting firm Hayden-Wilder a few year ago after research showed that the Millennials often had high expectations—but little preparation—when it came to undertaking that initial job search. "The scariest thing for these kids is, that as much as they've been taken care of, when they get out of college there's no net. And they're left just swinging in the wind," says Hayden.

Preparing Millennials for Rejection

Now she provides them with coaching services not only on how to land a job, but also how to deal with the near inevitability that they are going to be hearing a lot of nos. "Their expectations are very, very high. It's frightening they're so high," says Hayden, who tells clients point blank, no matter how well prepared they are, they will probably get rejected. "Usually if you're really, really well prepared the decision isn't something you want to psychoanalyze. You just have to keep moving forward," she counsels.

Other experts on the Millennials say they do well with a lot of nurturing, feedback, and direction. Nurturing and feedback are all well and good, but here's the rub: If you get a gold star for everything you do, you're not exactly prepared for the cold, hard fact that we're all going to face rejection. And it's often not the kindly worded, gentle brand of rejection. Sometimes it's a curt no, and sometimes it's even a particularly cutting no response.

I remember working with a very capable, promising intern who was distraught that she wasn't hearing back from editors on a number of her pitches or submissions. She assumed, as I'd sometimes done when I was an intern, that perhaps the work was so hopeless it didn't deserve a reply. I told her that nine times out of ten the person was just extremely busy or let it slip through the cracks and just needed a follow-up nudge. But even if it was a terrible idea, don't take it personally. And learn from it.

An Uninspiring Economy

I had to learn this lesson in a different way. At some point during college I pitched the rejection jar in the dumpster. I suppose I was just done with it. It seemed like quite a waste of energy to be that perpetually, well, mad. I'd also had a lot of positive experiences, and extremely supportive influences along the way, and in my bitterness I was basically ignoring them and their valuable lessons.

Furthermore, I was too distracted by emotion to rationally dissect situations and learn from my disappointments; sizing up when things were indeed out of my hands and where there was room for improvement. When you come down to it, rejection is a natural and healthy part of life, even if it really hurts at the time.

So to all those young job seekers out there, launching your career in this rather uninspiring economy: You will probably get a good dose of rejection early on. But maybe this isn't such bad news. Maybe you're actually lucky. You'll learn, when the stakes aren't really that high, that you can be turned down and the world won't come to an end.

If there's one thing I learned from that rejection jar it's this: Cherish your victories, but truly relish your defeats.

Gerdes is a staff editor for BusinessWeek in New York.

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