We need to talk about failure and rejection.
We are all so quick to celebrate success. And why not? Success is shiny and exciting and inspirational. It sparks joy. Success is easy to understand and weave into an overarching narrative with a happy ending. They worked so hard and look what they got! They never gave up and - wow - look at them now! These stories can drive us to work harder, longer and with more focus. They remind us of the message so many of us have internalized from youth: if you work hard enough, you will one day reap a reward. And so often another person's success can feel like your success too. That makes us happy. And who doesn't need a bit more happiness in their life?
Failure and rejection are much more complicated.
The grief you can feel for missing out on something you have worked hard for is raw, uncomfortable and dispiriting. The sadness can have two prongs: sadness for the version of yourself that worked hard and didn't get what they wanted, and sadness for the alternative, successful version of yourself that will now never exist. This is particularly acute if you genuinely do not know what you could have done differently to achieve a better outcome. You don't know if you're not talented or tenacious enough, or if the problem is systemic or related to unconscious bias. You don't know if the other people are simply better at whatever it is you applied to do, or if there is a bit of the puzzle you don't have.
Some people try their very best, reach for the stars, and manage to grab them in their hard-working paws. But others try their very best and never manage to launch into orbit at all. And it really, really sucks.
Here's the thing, though. We tend to know about other people's successes and judge ourselves against them. But missed opportunities are too often shrouded in secrecy and shame. I hope that in sharing my own Resume of Rejections, I can help at least one person feel better. Because behind every success is so much more that didn't go to plan.
And that's normal.
Lauren's Resume of Rejections
When I was 18 I had a job interview at DEKA. Remember DEKA? That place that wasn't quite Farmers, wasn't quite K-Mart, and had a fondness for coloured triangles. The interview involved stacking a shelf. I did not get the job and was never told why. Perhaps my stacking prowess was not up to scratch. This was followed by at least a dozen more jobs applied for while at university that I did not even shortlist for. Like my DEKA experience, I never found out why. Maybe they could smell my incompetence at shelf-stacking. Or perhaps it was for another reason entirely.
At 22, I had my first interview for a professional job. I spent $80 I couldn't afford on a smart skirt and wore it with a white shirt. When I waited to go into the interview I looked around and realised I was the only person waiting not wearing a suit. I didn't get the job. Even now I wonder if it was due to the lack of a suit or the fact my expensive skirt suddenly felt cheap, and I couldn't shake off a voice that said: you don't belong here.
At 23, I had another professional interview. This time I scrimped and saved and borrowed so I could buy a suit. My interview preparation was intense: hours of reading, rehearsing and practicing wearing my new suit with poise and confidence. I still didn't get the job. When I got the rejection email, I cried. Then I raged, largely at myself for not being better. Then I threw the suit on the floor. Of course I picked it up again right away. It had cost the same as I spent on groceries in a month, after all.
Between that time and now I have applied for many more jobs. Some were always a shot in the dark. But others I felt perfectly qualified for. Some rejections I have felt okay with - the rejection-rationale made sense, or I didn't really want it anyway. Others really hurt. Since suit-gate I can think of at least three more instances when a 'no' has triggered such disappointment I've cried. For two others, I was left with a deep sense of shame for reasons I don't fully understand. Maybe it was because the people on both interview panels knew me. They may have said 'there were others more qualified for this position'. But I heard: 'you suck.' I worried that, deep down, I'm still the 18-year old that can't stack shelves at DEKA.
Here are my stats for professional jobs:
What about my writing? On balance I'm delighted with how things are going. But it's certainly not been smooth sailing and I've resolved to give up completely at least three times.
I have written many things that have not yet found a home (and, let's be honest, are unlikely to without some serious revision). I have entered more than twice as many competitions as those I have placed in, and submitted work to at least three journals that haven't wanted them. I've also started a number of books I've not finished. Some of them just didn't work so I gave up. Some of them were early in my writing career and reading over them makes me want to stick pins into my eyelids. But a couple of others I intend to return to at some stage and finish.
Here are my stats below. Although it's worth mentioning that two years ago this would have looked pretty different as I hadn't published any books yet and many of my short stories were still lurking in my Word files amongst a clutter of rejection slips. Who knows how it will look in two more years?
Then there's the other things you set out to do. Sometimes they work out, sometimes they don't. We often talk about the things we've done. Less so the things we've meant to do but haven't pulled off. There's usually a good reason: for me it's been a combination of asthma and injury that have held me back. But, sometimes, it's just as simple as an idea sounding great in theory but far too much effort in practice. And not a single one of the things I've done has been in the past 5 years.
Here are my stats.
Every single rejection I've had has led to other opportunities I wouldn't have gone without. Not that this knowledge always helps in the moment. Sometimes we're too busy being mean to ourselves and/or feeling sad and/or angry and/or throwing around expensive suits to gain perspective. The road is long and windy. And, more often than not, it doubles back on itself over and over before it pushes ahead. And not succeeding at something you set out to achieve is a universal experience.
Let's talk more openly about it so we feel less alone.