I’ve been afraid of rejection for as long as I can remember. I’m the sort of person who cares a fair bit about what other people think–more before than I do now, granted. But I still can’t really shake myself of the habit. For a long time, my personality was such that anytime someone would turn me down or tell me no, I’d want to try even harder. Keep at it. Not let it drop until I’d overcome that rejection. Because rejection can come in a lot of different ways. It can be when you’re not picked first (or second, or third . . .) in a pickup game of ball. When you lose out at an audition. When you ask a girl to a dance and she says no. When you submit a manuscript to an editor and they give it a pass.
For a guy who doesn’t like to be rejected (though who does?), I seem to put myself in the way of rejection an awful lot. Sometimes it can come out of the blue and hit you square in the face when you least expect it, or when you’re least prepared. Nothing’s quite like having a downer of a day, only to be socked with a nice rejection letter or two to top it all off. It can be really hard to keep writing, or keep trying, or keep caring, when the hits just keep on coming.
But the thing is, it seems most of the things in this life that are worthwhile end up putting you in the line of rejection fire sooner or later. When I was applying for jobs, I had sent out over 50 applications and heard “no’s” from almost all of them before I finally got a “yes.” After I got that “yes,” I got a few more “no’s.” It was amazing how much easier it was to handle rejection when I already had an acceptance. When I was applying to English doctoral programs and I got no’s across the board . . . that was pretty rough. And then I applied to a single Library Science program and got a yes. Go figure.
I’ve had all sorts of rejections over the years. In eighth grade English, when my teacher refused to recommend me for the advanced English course the next year. (Reason? I couldn’t write well enough.) On my mission in Germany, when each and every day was filled with people telling me I was wrong, I was wasting my time, or I was deluded. The job applications I mentioned. The query letters. Asking girls out back in the day.
No matter how much practice I get with it, it doesn’t seem to get a whole lot easier. I think sometimes I assume that there will come a day when rejection will be a thing of the past, or when I won’t care anymore. Sometimes, I think we keep trying to prove ourselves in different ways because we think that if we just become great enough, then we’ll be at a level where rejection doesn’t hurt anymore. But from my experience, no matter the level you reach, you’re still in danger of having someone tell you “no.”
So what do we do about it? I still have that contrary streak in me. The desire to try harder once I get rejected. It’s done me pretty well so far, though I’ll also admit that there are times when it takes a bit longer to pick myself up off the ground and try again. Like with my job applications, it’s much easier to deal with rejection when you’re in a position of strength. So it’s when we’re at our most vulnerable that it hurts the most, and that’s unfortunately often when we have to put ourselves in the most danger of being rejected.
I don’t really have a conclusion here. But I was working on writing yesterday when a few types of rejection reared their ugly heads. Ironically, the scene I was writing was about a character dealing with rejection. So there I was, stuck in the same boat as the poor guy I’d just inflicted the same thing on that happened to me. Maybe I can turn to him to see how he dealt with it. It’s first draft stuff, but I’ll share it anyway, since I feel it applies to the current discussion. In this scene, Eldin (the main character) is talking to his friend Braces about the setbacks they’ve been having at school. (Important note: Eldin is fairly amoral. He’s got a code he lives by, but it isn’t the one you and I might choose to obey.)
“Don’t you want to just throw in the towel, mate?” Braces asked me one evening about a week after we’d returned. “Nobody would blame you. Nobody wants us here. They’d probably throw us a ruddy going away party.”
I grunted, lying in bed and staring at the ceiling. “And that’s why I’m not going to give up.”
I rolled over on my side, propping myself up on an elbow. “Come on, Braces. Give up? When all these people want me to? When they’re all being jerks to us and doing their best to get us to leave? Doesn’t that make you want to stay even more?”
Braces stared at me in confusion. “What? No.”
I shook my head. “Then maybe you and I are different. Me? Bobba always said I was stubborn. Not just kind of sort of stubborn, either. I’m hardcore stubborn, and I know it. Someone tells me I can’t do something or shouldn’t do something, then all I want to do is go and do it. Prove them wrong. Shove their faces in it and have them be forced to admit that they were wrong and I was right.”
My friend thought about that for a while, scratching his head in an almost caricature of concentration. “So,” he said at last. “For you, it’s not about succeeding. It’s about winning?”
A smile broke out on my face. “That’s my whole life in one sentence. Perfectly put, Braces.”
He hesitated before he asked the next question, maybe afraid I was going to be ticked at his lack of faith. “And what happens if you lose?”
The smile didn’t drop an inch. I shrugged. “I keep playing.”
“That’s insanity, Eld. In. Sanity. Me? I go slink off and try to pretend it all never happened.”
“But don’t you see?” I asked. This conversation suddenly seemed important. Like it meant something more than it had a moment ago. Like I was trying to justify this to myself, and if I could convince Braces—if I could make him see—then it would all be okay, and my worries would be over. I would be right.
I continued. “Life is a game. It starts the day we’re born, and it ends the day we die. But some people give up long before that happens. You have something go wrong, and you think you lost. Why is that? Why do people just give up? I think it’s because of movies. We’re used to seeing good guys win or bad guys lose, and as soon as that happens, it’s roll credits, fade to black. But that’s wrong. That’s not how it works. Because their lives keep going in reality. None of us get a fade to black until we’re dead. So you have a setback? So what? If you have a bad dice roll in Monopoly, do you give up and go read a book? You keep playing. Life is a game, and the person who wants to win it needs to keep playing until it’s over.”
Braces stared at me, thinking it over. “So you don’t think you can lose?”
I shrugged. “Not unless I admit the game is over and I lost.”
Another pause. “But . . . What if you’re bankrupt in Monopoly, your opponent owns all the hotels, and the rules say you lost?”
It all clicked in my head at once—my explanation, my feelings, my thoughts. I lay back down on the bed and stared at the ceiling. “That’s when you start cheating. Change the rules. Steal from the bank. You do what you need to do to just. Keep. Playing. Life doesn’t have a timer. It doesn’t have rules written down. There are no goal posts, and no one knows how we’re really keeping score. So why in the world would anyone ever want to just give up?”
Braces didn’t say anything for a long time. Long enough that I thought he must have fallen asleep. It was okay. I let my mind wander over the possibilities. What the future might hold, and how I might respond to it. I hadn’t been kidding about changing the rules. Like I’d told him before: running a successful con—winning, in this case—all came down to knowing the angles better than your opponent. Our Lady had set up the rules. This school was much more like a real game than it was like real life. And so if I could tweak things the right way, I knew I’d come out on top.
And then, out of nowhere, Braces added one more sentence. “Remind me not to play you at Monopoly, mate.”
He wasn’t the first person to make that decision. And he wouldn’t be the last.
I think I do believe that. Keep playing. You get rejected, fine. It’s going to happen. It’s inevitable. But you don’t give up, and you don’t let it dissuade you. If I’d stopped applying for jobs at number 30 or 40, I’d never have gotten the one I have now. I know it doesn’t always work like this–I know that there are real setbacks and real costs and terrible things–but in the end, we all have a choice about how we’re going to respond to it all.
I hope I can continue to just keep playing.