Rejection takes you further than success: why getting rejected a lot brought me here

Here’s something completely unoriginal: you’re going to get flat-ass rejected, crushing whatever self-indulgent perspective you have on yourself, and then you will go some place magical and it will change you.

Here’s my submission to the #jcarn FAIL blog ring.

In 2003, I was an involved and eager high school senior who struggled to focus and was a lot more interested in creative side projects than studying or school work. I thought it made me unique and valuable. Turns out, it just made me a shitty student.

I grew up in rural northwest New Jersey, where the population was made up mostly of either generational residents or the extended foam of the New York City white flight wave. My parents were the latter and my family all lived in or around the 67th ward.

I wanted to go to college in a big city, without following the footsteps of my classmates or returning to ancestral roots, so I applied to colleges and universities throughout the Eastern Seaboard. I am wildly involved, have decent grades and, come on, I’m a total hoot, I thought, these freakin’ schools are going to be fighting over me.

Until the very thin envelopes from universities started to come in.

I was rejected or wait-listed (which, in my case, was worse than being rejected because there’s so much longing) by more schools than I probably even remember or have found the papers for:

  • Boston University
  • Boston College
  • New York University (OK, this was my New York exception, but my maternal grandfather had started here)
  • Rutgers University (yes, I believe my own state school wait-listed me, though I can’t find the letter for proof)
  • College of New Jersey
  • Drexel University
  • American University
  • George Washington University

Then I started reevaluating myself. I really didn’t do particularly well on my SATs — in one particularly embarrassing incident, after a night of blowing my nose and staying up late sick, my nose started bleeding on the test and got special permission to leave the packed gymnasium — I seemed to have more B’s than A’s, and I had gotten into some trouble, mostly for goofing around, but some a bit more serious.

I wasn’t feeling particularly proud as early 2004 wore on and my senior year began to close. I felt like I failed. I was really, emphatically embarrassed.

I remember now, filling out forms in my basement, dismissing my mother’s cool and gentle suggestions that perhaps I shoot a tad lower. She did so with greater aplomb than I can do so here, as she was always encouraging, but I wouldn’t hear it, and she didn’t push.

I’ll try to remember that, looking back, I’m glad my parents didn’t instruct me to do otherwise, and I hope to handle such a situation the same way someday.

Because at some point, I got an acceptance letter from Temple University in North Philadelphia.

As a senior at Temple in 2008, I remember assessing how perfectly timed my application was to Temple, a big state-related university that historically had educated Philadelphians and featured a prominent black student population. In 2004, then President David Adamany was trying to bolster its reputation, by increasing SAT scores and bringing in students outside the region.

When I joined Temple, I was a pretty good student by their standards, who came from a different region and was involved in various student groups, with interest to study abroad. All fit into Adamany’s push — even though I was rejected by the school’s honors program.

By the time I graduated Temple, I had improved my grades each semester, squeezed into the honors program, finished a thesis project, studied abroad twice, became a leader at the school newspaper and, oh, my academic standards from high school were no longer good enough to get me accepted. In four years, Temple had made sure that, if the timing was different, they too would have rejected me.

Something else funny happened.

I fell madly, obsessively in love with Philadelphia.

Yes, almost certainly it had something to do with an appreciation for anyone taking me as a college student. Yes, I am a prideful person by nature, so no matter where I went to school, I’d sure take pride.

But equally true was that I found an enormous city that was 90 miles from my childhood home, but that had surprisingly less outside interest. This was where everything in our country started, but no one knew it. It had all the nascent underground communities — in music, art, culture, cinema, technology, food and more — that other cities covet or promote, but was doing so subtly and quietly. It had all the infrastructure of an international city but wasn’t yet there.

I came to believe I had a winning horse that for some reason was characterized as an underdog. I wanted to be here to help it win.

So I started a business. And bought a house. And offer my time back to the university (whose reputation has grown considerably in a very short time, so I totally get credit for that). And my neighborhood. And I love it.

I hope to someday thank all of those other universities for rejecting me.

Specific Lessons:

  • Do not criticize others for attempting or reaching, provided they are actually trying.
  • Innovation, success, forward movement, all comes most successfully when you reach a bit.
  • Do reach, accept when you fail, share it online and let others learn from it.
  • You don’t really know what success and failure is in the moment, that takes time.
  • Timing will dictate more of your success and failure than you’re going to want to admit.