Failure: It’s so hot right now. Silicon Valley gurus preach the importance of “failing fast,” while schools are trying to teach girls that it’s okay to fail. Psychologist Adam Grant says parents and bosses alike should praise failure, and articles declare that failing at everything in your 20s is actually ideal. After all, without failure, there’s no success.
This is all to the good. But despite the conceptual trendiness of failure, we still tend to sweep our day-to-day, real-life experiences of failure and rejection under the rug. According to BuzzFeed journalist Saeed Jones, this is highly problematic. Having been rejected by various book agents, who told him that “memoirs just don’t sell,” Jones (who recently sold his memoir for six figures) knows both the sting of rejection and the frustration of feeling like you need to tuck away less-than-flattering professional experiences.
That’s why Jones created the hashtag #ShareYourRejections this week. Writing on Twitter, he shared that he has been repeatedly rejected from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the famous annual program run by Middlebury College in Vermont:
Within minutes, the hashtag #ShareYourRejections went viral, with writers, artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and professionals of all kinds sharing their rejection stories. Many of these people are now highly-respected in their respective fields. But the important lesson from #ShareYourRejection isn’t that failure eventually, and inevitably, leads to mainstream success and accolades. Rather, it’s that we all need to figure out how to persevere in the face of rejection, whether that means continuing to submit a rejected manuscript to other publishers or striking out on a new venture entirely.
It’s worth noting, of course, that rejection is hardly a sign of someone’s personal or professional worth. Even people who’ve achieved widespread acclaim face rejection on a regular basis. Consider Roxane Gay, the award-winning feminist writer, professor, and author:
Furthermore, experiencing rejection isn’t a reliable indicator of how much success you’ll later achieve:
Rejection, as Jones said today on AM2DM, his BuzzFeed morning news show, is just “part of the game.”
“As kids, we’re told that we should want to be successful, but we have this idea in American culture that you should just be successful, it just happens,” Jones explained on AM2DM. “You’re not supposed to show the striving, or the hard steps, only the fun. You’re only supposed to talk about the happy ending, not everything on the way. But the problem is I think people are very lonely in their experience with rejection.”
What’s more, rejection is not synonymous with failure. “You have to stumble, you have to make mistakes and hit your head against the wall many times, but that does not mean you should stop,” Jones clarified. “Rejection is not failure, and rejection is not an indictment of who you are or the value of your work. It’s just a decision that’s been made in a specific instance. If you’re going to succeed in a career, you have to believe in your work more than anyone else—agents, editors, readers.”
Inspiring as this call to action is, it might sting a bit coming from a hyper-successful people like Jones, or any of the thousands of people whose brief, wondrous #ShareYourRejection tweets end with them successfully breaking into the cultural institutions that once locked them out. After all, not everyone’s story ends with a six-figure book deal. It’s a sentiment Claire Schwartz shared on Twitter today:
The truth is that, for the vast majority of people, relentless persistence will not result in smashing success. Nor should we shame ourselves for being wounded by failure, or for taking the time to heal, as Bene Cipolla explains in Quartz. After all, there are lessons to be learned from rejection and failure, too.
As Olivia Goldhill writes in Quartz, when we think about failure as simply a step on the continuum toward success, we can blind ourselves from recognizing underlying traits about ourselves, or about the industries we’re trying to break into. This is a theory advanced by Costica Bradatan, a philosophy professor at Texas Tech University who researches failure. “When we experience failure, it makes us question our sense of who we are, our place in the world, everything,” Bradatan tells Goldhill. “Before our failure leads us somewhere else, we have to face it in its own terms, in all its ugliness and devastation, and that’s a serious business.”
Rejection may inspire us to go back to the drawing board—to rework our proposals, or scrap them altogether and come up with a better idea. Or we may make a conscious decision to stop knocking on an unresponsive door and reshape the system that doesn’t want you, rather trying to get past the cultural gatekeepers. That’s why some of the most inspirational #ShareYourRejection stories don’t end with the person getting exactly what they wanted in the first place.
Matt Cummings, for example, wrote about how rejections inspired him to change career paths—one that he’s found much more happiness pursuing.
The poet and professor Kaveh Akbar noted that Sharon Olds, one of the most famous poets today, treats her rejections as an opportunity to learn, reflect, and grow:
Meanwhile, Ron Holt, a San Francisco-based psychiatrist, dedicated his career to spreading support and awareness for the LGBTQ community after being rejected by his family for being gay:
This rejection-rebound mindset is particularly valuable for women, people of color, and people from marginalized backgrounds, seeing as most professional institutions were built for, and by, white, straight, cis men. Of course, when people like Roxane Gay (a queer black woman) or Jones (a queer black man) do break into traditionally white, male spaces, their success powerfully reshapes broken systems from within. Their presence shows diverse voices matter. But when we talk about rejection and failure without acknowledging the painful truth that some people will not ultimately conquer the cultural, political, or professional gatekeepers standing in their way, we disillusion ourselves—while potentially hindering innovation.
The core lesson, voiced by many on Twitter, is that perseverance in the face of rejection must come from a core belief in yourself and your work, whatever the opinion of any publication, company, or production you aspire to join.
Jones echoed this message on AM2DM, responding to a listener who asked about how you can ever know whether to have faith in your own work. ”All you can trust in is how passionate you continue to feel about your work,” he said. “You don’t ever know if it’s really good enough, you only know if it’s valuable to you, and you hope that will come through to readers. In the end, you are going to have to be the biggest advocate for what you’re doing.”