On Rejection (and Failure)
Updated: Nov 9
Last week I didn't get a job I wanted. Really wanted. The job would have given me invaluable experience in a range of industries. Also, it paid an hourly rate for all of the hours worked, which most grad student jobs in Oxford don't. I wanted it a lot, I was shortlisted and interviewed, and in the end I just wasn't... right.
Walking along the canal towards Jericho, you may meet others whose rejection of you is even more keenly felt.
Some people treat professional disappointments like a break-up. I've heard advice like 'sorry you didn't get that promotion, eat a pint of ice-cream'. I am not in the business of eating a pint of ice-cream, on any occasion. Eating that much ice-cream in one sitting would make me sick. However, upon receiving rejections, I am inclined to wander morosely through town lamenting my existence. Like a bad hangover, professional rejection makes me deeply existential.
When you're a PhD student at Oxford, there is an assumption that you are a person who is ill-acquainted with the twins of presumed inadequacy: rejection and failure. That is an unfortunate misunderstanding. I have slogged through so many applications, it was, for a year, my main occupation. And if you apply for things, you get rejected for things. The more you apply, the more you get rejected. I am better at applying for things than I am at doing anything else. Except dishes, I'm very good at doing the dishes.
I admit I could be better acquainted with the twins. Things have generally gone well for me in the past (see: the consequences of writing and revising applications over and over). I do, however, anticipate that we will become bosom buddies in the coming years. And the reason is: I'm ready to fail out. Or fail up, or whatever the self-help gurus are saying.
I have learnt, from the Lovely Man, that rejection, in moderate doses, is good for you (by you, I mean me. I wish it on no one else). Rejection re-calibrates priorities, life goals, ambitions, actual needs versus 'all the crap and validation you think you need thanks to Instagram and your industry's toxic work culture'. Here's looking at you #AcademicTwitter.
Sticking with the twins analogy, consider rejection and failure as fraternal twins. They cannot Parent Trap or shop in a New York Minute. They may seem very similar, but each rejection happens only once (unless you apply to the same thing twice, like me), whereas I can feel like a failure for months at a time with no apparent explanation and without actually having failed at anything specific. Yet.
I thought about sharing a list of programmes/scholarships/awards/grants that I've been rejected for and obsessively detailing everything I've failed at. But I won't. Partly because I'm in a good mood and why ruin that, a little bit because I still have to apply for stuff and don't want to give funders a(nother) reason to reject me, but mostly because I have been ridiculously fortunate. I have had enough things go right that a CV of Failure seems tone-deaf. (And I hope that readers take this in good faith - it is luck. And privilege. And sometimes the benefits of high-functioning anxiety.)
Instead, I leave you this week with the zen of a Sunday night at the end of a weekend spent trudging many paths in search of calm and purpose. Walking really does help. Having found at least acceptance and calm, if not purpose, I rest now before tomorrow's inevitable step once more into the week's fray, brandishing a sword forged in the fires of necessity and beat into shape upon the brow of my own stubborn skull.
If you walk far enough in almost any direction in Oxford you get to water, and that's usually quite calming to look at. Other options include throwing yourself into it (wetsuit and co-swimmers recommended).