I heard you didn’t get into that thing you wanted to get into.
There, there — have a scented, multicolored luxury tissue. Take a seat, make yourself comfortable. No need to hold back the tears, or bottle up those feelings of inadequacy that will more than likely haunt you for the rest of your life until you either see a proper therapist or fail to obtain a six- to 12-figure salary and/or a stub on Wikipedia.
Welcome to the Rejection Recovery Support Focus Group. We’re all steaming hot messes.
You probably thought you were done with the whole applications and interviews thing (unless, of course, you’re thinking of going to grad school — in which case, you might want to consider a Pro Membership to our group). You slaved away in high school and worked so hard to become enough of a quasi-saint genius to pass through the pearly gates of Elite Education. You’ve already realized upon arriving at this nirvana that you’re a small fish in an accomplished pond full of Olympic athletes, 18-year-old CEOs and at least 500 researchers on the cusp of discovering some cure to cancer. Surely you’ve earned a break from competing in more show pony hoop-jumping.
But alas, nothing is guaranteed. Especially not admission to a number of performing arts groups, campus publications, preprofessional organizations, sports teams and other highly coveted clubs. Not even courses you supposedly paid to get access to in your tuition are necessarily available to you. Emails with rainbow-font text and curated GIFs flood your inbox with deceptive glee —“Everyone is encouraged to apply!” So you do. You send in application after application, bringing practiced confidence, flair and enthusiasm to interviews before stone-faced upperclassmen asking you about your passions and zodiac sign while completing at least one CS assignment that was due yesterday.
Soon, thunder rolls down the dorm hallways at arse o’clock in the morning for five consecutive days. Levels of killer intent rise with each appearance of rally gear, banshee shrieks and over-caffeinated door-pounding. An hour later, your fellow hallmates emerge from their rooms transformed, new crests emblazoned on their door. “Wow, he’s a Mendicant,” your roommate — the one kid who got a 98 percent on the Math 51X midterm — whispers in hushed reverence. Meanwhile you can’t help but gaze at the heraldry with a sinking heart — there’s someone in BASES, another in Cardinal Free Clinics, another in Dv8, another in the elusive Stanford Underwater Basket Weaving Club. Was all the hullaballoo about Open Membership Policy just a sham? By the end of the “OMG WHAT AM I DOING THIS SUMMER” application rush (spanning from Week 1 fall quarter to Week 11 spring), you’ll probably find yourself despairing over the sizable pile of rejections on your desktop, ready to topple over and bury you in your incompetency.
And you might start wondering whether or not you were a mistake — a bastard child of good scores with no substance, of admission by manumission from extenuating circumstances, of a mixup of names or vaguely conspiratorial alien abduction. You might start feeling unbelievably small, inadequate and lost. You came all this way to do something meaningful, and here you are, unwanted.
We’ve all been there. And I promise you — things will work out.
I know that sounds like a massive cop-out —“Things will work out.” And it is. Go to any “Life after Graduation” event, and there will inevitably be the same reassurances from established alumni with decent amounts of discretionary income, approximately 2.1 children and a dog: In spite of the failures you will face, you will inevitably find the happiness and success you’ve always dreamed of.
But what if you just … kept failing?
Statistically speaking, this is definitely possible. No one can say with absolute confidence that things will be alright. Not I, nor can any well-meaning mentors. You may very well fail your way out of college, or find that no one wants to hire you in spite of your prestigious-AF Stanford degree, or end up dying alone in a bathtub sipping cheap rosé wine. Just because you went to Stanford doesn’t mean you’re destined for greatness or that you’ll necessarily make the impact that you wanted to make — inside and outside of the University.
“Things will work out” doesn’t mean that things will miraculously fall into place on their own or that you’ll necessarily end up achieving what you had dreamed of doing since you were in the womb. When someone tells you “things will work out,” it’s a statement of confidence in your capacity to change, learn and grow in order to reach a place where you feel happy with where you are and whom you have become. And utter rejection is a great place to start.
You can take the “just you wait” approach — accept the fact that you’re young, scrappy, hungry and underqualified, and you need to start small. Take on more supportive roles in organizations that are willing to trust and nurture beginners. Take classes and read up more on your field of interest. Talk to people who are where you’d like to be and ask them about how they got there. Find mentors who can point you to opportunities and helpful contacts. Say “yes” to everything, and gradually infiltrate the field. And once a big job that you’re somewhat unqualified for comes up, take it and get ready to learn. You’ll soon gain enough experience to be so qualified that you’ll simultaneously wow and scare your employers. You can also take this nebulous state of rejection as an opportunity to explore activities you haven’t considered before. Even the most impromptu experiences can teach you invaluable skills and ways to look at the world. Find low-stake spaces where it is safe to fail, and get ready to learn.
As Tracee Ellis Ross said, you’ll slowly learn every day to allow the space between where you are and where you want to be to inspire you and not terrify you. And don’t let rejection deter you from pursuing what matters to you. There’s a long list of people who have gone through this before you. There is nothing to be afraid of.
I won’t say rejection is a blessing, but rejection is a blessing. In the long term, you’ve potentially avoided an existential crisis from blindly following a default path that has led you to depression and self-loathing. But the most invaluable part of rejection comes from the painful dissonance that forces you to do things differently. You’ve been given time to learn about how to seek help and guidance. You’ve thought about what matters most to you and what legacy you want to leave. And now you have the opportunity to grow in ways you might not have thought possible.
We’re all here for a “reason.” But no admissions officer or professed authority can say this reason promises success or acceptance. Only we can create the meaning of that reason and justify what makes our lives worthwhile. Every now and then, “look at where you are, look at where you started,” and discover what would be enough for you. Use the “intellectual vitality” and passion that got you here, and find a place where you feel at home.
And definitely try again next year.
Contact Vivian Lam at vivlam25 ‘at’ stanford.edu.