Normalizing versus learning to cope with failure and rejection

This week, Twitter saw the advent of a hashtag I’m kind of conflicted about: #ShareYourRejection. It was primarily for writers because there rejection is everyday, even for established writers, and because you have to contend with it. I brought it into academic Twitter because I think these things are equally as important for academics, specifically young academics…but I have to remind myself a lot, too, and I am not young by any means.

The criticism arises that the ability to share your rejections and failures openly is a function of privilege. Undoubtedly. There is part of me, however, that thinks it’s a good use of privilege, to show that even those whom you may think are past all that are not. Most definitely not.

Some of these stories turned into humblebrags: this editor rejected me, another one finally took the book and it went on to win awards etc and then that editor died of shame. I think sometimes even these stories can be helpful. Marty Wachs told me a story of somewhat similar ilk, not at all humblebraggy, that sustained me through many rejections and that I still tell to my own students.

My shared stories of rejection were not nearly as triumphant. These involved my advisor rejecting me for a book editor job when he was a journal editor–without a word of “sorry, kid, I had to go another direction” and my colleagues rejecting me for a leadership position here.

I have never gotten over these, and I should. A smarter, tougher, more seasoned academic would put it away, compartmentalize it, not think about it. Instead, though each happened years ago, they still hurt, and I don’t have anything triumphant about them to relate now.

Actually, a bit of schadenfreude, I guess. By shooting me down when I tried to lead at USC, my colleagues gave me the time and space, as I changed from ambitious young faculty member to jaded older faculty member, to learn that I was perfectly happy *not* leading anything at USC (or anywhere else).

People in normal organizations will wonder why that matters. Academics will understand that is a major, major problem to have tenured faculty who have no interest in running things. I remember when I was talking with John Randolph, a colleague of mine at VT, about it and he shook his head. “They are going to regret that.”

Nobody mentored me out of this problem, and I’ve never wrapped my own head around it to come up with other ideas, so I never got over it, and now I am pretty convinced that my lack of ambition towards other scholarly roles is just as well because I would probably be *inherently* bad at them. We’ll likely not know now.

These two moments of rejection hurt so much because they are those that remind one that you just aren’t a favored child–and I never was one. If you have autism or Asperger’s, you are never the favored child. You are loved *despite* who you are. You are not easy. You are awkward, weird, often embarrassing. Going places with you involves shame. It’s clear to everybody that you are burden instead of a joy. You don’t relate to people the right way. When you are never golden child, you know it. And it hurts. And reminders of that hurt sting, even as you grow into the person you are and the realization that for you, at least, to be is to be singular, alone, with the human relations extended to you caveated, asterisked.

2 thoughts on “Normalizing versus learning to cope with failure and rejection

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this, Lisa, and your blog in general! I always look forward to your posts and share them with students and colleagues. Re the #shareyourrejection tag, it’s tricky and something I struggle with, given imposter syndrome magnified by being a POC in academia–but at the same time, it is so helpful to know that people you admire and who are successful also go through the same thing. I think it gets easier as more time goes by (and more pubs come out!) Thanks again for creating this space!

  2. One of the great rejection storied happened when Doris Lessing submitted a manuscript under a pseudonym. Rejected by numerous publishers,, the book ultimately was published after an editor sussed out her style and found it was her work.

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