on rejection: in writing, science, and life

failure

Let’s face it, rejection stinks.

I’ll spare you the gory details, but an “experiment” I was working all summer failed on Wednesday. For my research, I write statistical software programs that sometimes take a long time to run. And sometimes, they take a loooong time to fail. You wait for weeks, only to find that you violated some statistical assumption–or more infuriatingly, that a misplaced comma or errant semi-colon blew up your entire program.

Now, I know: it’s science. (Or social science, as the case may be). Trial and error is inevitable. And I think hope that some of my work is salvageable, but still: disappointing.

Then, last night, while I was gleefully sipping Shiraz with my best childhood friend, I got an email  (damn smartphone!) that my first dissertation paper had gotten rejected by not the first but the second journal I’d submitted it to. Ouch.

Now, I’ve been around long enough to know that articles are often rejected, and that most good journals only accept a small fraction of the articles they receive. But not long enough not to be stung by the rejection. When this happens to my friends, I counsel them: don’t take it personally! But, let’s be real, it’s hard not to take it personally: this work you’ve slaved over, spent hours rewriting and revising, only to have the methods, the writing, or even worse, the idea, has been bounced back to square one? It stinks.

On my more optimistic days, I don’t mind, because I know that in the process of revising, in pushing through the mental and verbal barriers, the work will transform into something better.

But other days, I can’t help but wonder: am I cut out for this? I don’t mean this in a whiny, wah-wah-wah poor me mindset. I mean, objectively speaking: how do you know when failure (or a string of them) are simply barriers to push through? Obstacles that one day, perched upon a mountaintop of success, you will look back and scoff at? Or, when do you read the failures as signs that you should change course, redirect and refocus in a different direction?

How do you know when the data you’ve collected are conclusive, or just blips on the radar? 

I try to remember that my perspective is biased. I’m lucky enough work under top scientists in my field, which is a fantastic learning experience, of course. But one of the major downsides is that when I look at them–or even the students working for them–it’s hard not to be blindsided by their successes.  To see only their long, illustrious careers, dripping with shiny gold awards, grants, and honors. Even the challenges they encountered, when described in retrospect, seem less like real problems than necessary events on their inevitable road to success.

And that last one is the kicker. In the telling of past events, everything seems to line up perfectly. Because you already the happy ending, each failure or rejection seems like a minor plot twist, interjected into the story to provide some intrigue or humility, before everyone holds hands, sings Kumbayah, and gallops off into the sunset.  But in the moment–in the very moment when those events were unfolding–I bet it didn’t seem that way. Perhaps I am badly mistaken, but I bet even the best of the best had their sleepless nights, their anguished afternoons, their weary mornings.

So where is this going? Well, I don’t know. I started writing this post on Friday, and by today, after a long rainy weekend in bed, licking my wounds, watching Netflix, and eating peach-smothered waffles with my fingers, I feel better. Somehow just putting the words on the page has provided just the salve I needed. Whether or not I will someday too become one of those scientists perched upon a mountain top, only  time will tell.

But for now, I’ll keep trying.

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7 thoughts on “on rejection: in writing, science, and life

  1. I can feel your pain. I once had a grant project proposal rejected — it was not as much the rejection itself as rather the very impolite, arrogant and slightly insulting negative reviews I got for my project. I hate criticism, but I hate being criticised in an unnecessarily rude way even more 😦 Now, cut yourself some slack and then I wish you the best luck with your next project!

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    • Oh yeah, I’ve had my share of rude reviewers too! I just try to think of it as a good learning experience for what not to do someday when I’m in their shoes. Thanks for the encouragement!

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  2. It was a very personal post and wasn’t whiny at all. Something we all go through at some point of our life . Optimism and faith will take you a long way though. Good luck there with all your endeavours ahead !!!

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  3. To lick your wounds, bandage them with peach waffles, wine, chocolate or our fix of choice is the first step to healing after that rejection. It always hurts. Even famous scientists, authors and other artists have faced and still face rejection. To keep trying should be the motto for all of us. Never give up. Whine for a little while but don’t let it go on too long before you press on and keep trying. Believe in yourself. I do. And when you become that scientist perched on that mountain, don’t forget us little people who cheered you on. 😉

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  4. Hey there just read your post, as a fellow grad student I am soooo afraid of rejection… but we can’t let that stop us from trying. I am actually really relieved to read a story about rejection, because so often these stories are swept under the rug. Thanks for the honest perspective.

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