My son is two, and that means, for the most part, I can fix most of the problems he has. Food is too cold, he has a splinter in his foot, he’s hungry- these are all things I can fix. Sharing a coveted toy, ascending a big climbing wall, these too I can help him find a solution too (even if the solution is to walk away). I encourage him to find the solution to these situations on his own, but I know and he has faith that there is a solution available. But soon he will discover that there are some things without a solution and no amount of crying or trying will change that fact of life. I don’t look forward to him learning this. I dread the years when my son’s friends will decide they don’t like him, or a girl or boy will turn him down for a date. He will feel rejected and I can’t change that. It’s an awful feeling.
Rejection has been on my mind a lot lately. My university is going through some interesting times. Four people in their penultimate year went up for tenure, were recommended strongly for tenure by all levels of our bureaucracy (department, chair, dean, promotion and tenure committee) and were rejected by the provost. It’s created a lot of drama. I know these four professors are profoundly sad at being rejected this way, and they appealed to the president of the university; three won, one did not. I had a student come into my office crying because her advisor was the one whose appeal was rejected. He has one more year and then he has to find another job. This student could not seem to comprehend the rejection (even of someone else!). I had to walk her down to counseling to help her deal.
I get rejected all the time. It happens in academics as well as a lot of other fields. It hurts. But it’s not, and it shouldn’t be, the end of the world. There was an interesting piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on rejection. The author, Rebecca Schuman, who got her PhD but never got a tenure-track job, was making the case that rejection for academics is much more painful than for everyone else. I’m sorry, but no. Rejection is hard, because in many ways it feels personal (and sometimes it is). You feel like your whole self-worth is tied up in that rejection. That’s not a problem of academia, that’s a problem of individuals. We all got rejected (by dates, by colleges, by jobs, by publishing houses, by friends, by banks). If we tie up our self-worth in those applications and proposals than that’s our problem. The solution is to learn to accept any criticism (if the rejection comes with some) and move on! There’s never been a rejection that I’ve received that didn’t lead to other opportunities. It’s important to get those rejections so we learn to do better next time. When my article got rejected, I read the comments, rewrote the article and sent it out again. And I’m going to keep doing that while it makes sense to pursue this publication.
As for my son and his future rejections? I hope that I can teach him that it’s okay to be hurt. It’s okay to be disappointed, but his self-worth is not tied to those rejections, that there will always be people that love him, and that he will find the avenue that best suits his personality. I will hold him, let him cry, and let him know I love him. Rejection hurts in the moment, but it’s not the most painful feeling in the world. You need to learn and move on. And if you can’t- well, that’s the time to talk to a counselor.