Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, May 15, 2023
by Neil Senturia
When you have success, it is OK to celebrate. After all, good things showed up and happy outcomes are like hors d’oeuvres. When they are passing them on that nice tray, take one — even if you aren’t hungry — since they may not come around again.
So how do we celebrate failure and rejection? Most of us don’t and for sure, going out and getting bombed at the local dive bar is not an optimal solution. Rather, for an alternative view, let’s turn to Danielle Braff, a reporter with The New York Times, who tells the story of the Downtown Magnet High School in Los Angeles and Lynda McGee.
McGee, one of the school’s college counselors, is the architect of the famous “rejection party.” To attend this party, you only need one thing — a printed letter of rejection from a college to which you applied. Bring the rejection letter, step right up to the shredder and push start.
In Braff’s story McGee says, “You have to print it out because there is no satisfaction in deleting an email.” After the shredder, the bonus round is an ice cream sundae, because after all, “ice cream heals all wounds.” It is a rejection party, not a wake.
This is powerful stuff. Dealing with a hurt can fuel the determination to press on, and as we all know, where you go to college (if you even go) does not define the rest of your life. However, if you are aiming for the Supreme Court, try Harvard or Yale. (Eight out of the nine on the bench went to those two schools.)
I do not believe in wallowing, but spending a little time raging against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, so wrongly pointed at you, is good for the spirit. They have some nerve saying “no,” and that is followed by “I’ll show them the error and folly of their ways.”
Braff also writes about Barbara Sarnecka, associate dean of graduate studies at UC Irvine, who holds a rejection party “featuring champagne and Roman emperor togas, when her graduate students’ rejection pile — for academic journals, conferences, grants, fellowship and jobs — reaches 100.”
J.K. Rowling had 12 rejections of Harry Potter. Stephen King’s book “Carrie” was turned down 30 times before it was published. Dr. Seuss’ first book had 27 rejections. John Grisham notched 28 before “A Time To Kill” was published.
Harvard Business School rejected Warren Buffett, and Nobel Prize winner in medicine Harold Varmus was rejected by Harvard Medical School — twice. Everyone knows the Tom Brady story, picked almost last in the NFL draft.
None of us can see the future and all the roads and intersections to come, but one of the keys to personal success, in all its permutations and combinations, is unrelenting persistence.
The startup world is littered with companies and founders who have been turned down for financing and have later triumphed. It is the focused anger of “I’ll show them — they made a terrible mistake.” Ted Turner was rejected by Harvard and Yale, he went to Brown and dropped out when his father cut off his financial support. As a note, Turner was the captain of the sailing team and later won the America’s Cup.
Finally, my own confession. I graduated from high school shortly after the Civil War, and I applied to some colleges, one was Brandeis. The summer before my senior year, I spent three months bicycling through England and Europe. I get to the Brandeis interview in the fall, and I am asked only one question. The interviewer asked me how to spell the word bicycle. That was it, one and done, finito. He stood up, thanked me for coming, and then the interview was over. I turned and walked out. It will come as no surprise they later told me to pound sand. However, for the record book, I did spell it correctly. This is a true story.
But my personal regret, all these years later, is that I didn’t stand up and let him have it right between the eyes. Nothing to lose. That is one of those moments when we all want a second chance.
Many young people will get the infamous “thin envelope” this month. Do not despair. Go where you are wanted. And hold on to the hurt — trust me, it will feel very good later.
Rule No. 760: Rejection fuels the fire.