Science & Tech

The upside of rejection

4 min read

Successes talk about their failures

Want a dose of veritas? Even at a place like Harvard, rejection and failure are regular visitors.

Everyone has a story of a job, a paper, a fellowship application that failed to make the grade. Some rejections sting even years later.

Consider Xiao-Li Meng. He’s a Harvard Ph.D., chairman of a prestigious Harvard department (Statistics), and until this year was editor of one of his discipline’s strongest journals.

But Meng has suffered setbacks, including a rejection letter from one graduate school in his native China (despite near-perfect grades).

As master of probability, he would be the first to tell you that the odds of rejection, for all of us, are perfect.

And he would be the first to tell you that failure is sometimes the pathway to wisdom, or to new opportunity.

Meng was part of a panel last week (April 15) aptly called “Reflections on Rejections,” sponsored by Harvard’s Bureau of Study Counsel (BSC).

Those brave enough to come to the session at the Office of Career Services (around 20 listeners) got a reward: a pink button stamped “Rejected” and a booklet of 28 Harvard stories of personal failure.

The essays include one by a Harvard grad turned down by Starbucks. Others tell tales — softened by the mercy of passing time — of being rejected as novelists, column writers, business school students, lawyers, and jewelry makers.

Then there’s George Church. He repeated ninth grade and flunked out of a Duke University Ph.D. program.

But revenge is sweet. Church enrolled at Harvard the following year, earned a doctorate in 1984, and went on to write the first automated DNA sequencing software, win 10 patents (with others pending), and serve on 22 scientific advisory boards. He’s now a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Computational Genetics.

Despite present-day success, all of the Harvard essayists had experiences with rejection “that stayed with them years and years,” said booklet editor Abigail Lipson, who is the BSC director.

The staying power of rejection was evident to the panelists.

Meng remembers a single flubbed test in college that kept him from eating or sleeping for days.

But he remembers, too, what landed him at Harvard: his rejection from graduate school in China. “I’m really thankful they rejected me,” said Meng. “That’s why I’m here today.”

The panelist agreed that failure is sometimes the nudge you need to send your life in another, more fruitful, direction.

Patricia Hernandez ’04, a research associate at Harvard Business School, came to Harvard with her sights set on medical school — then hit a wall of C-plus grades in her science courses. “I should have realized my passions were elsewhere,” she said — as in the passion she is cultivating now for research and psychology.

“Rejection,” said Hernandez, “is a great signaling tool.”

Lipson called those redirecting moments of rejection “a sharp left” along a career path.

Panelist Lowry Pei ’67 is a professor of English at Simmons College. His first novel was a smash hit — and the next six were all turned down.

“I have harvested a hell of a lot of rejections,” he said, reflecting on the fickle publishing world. “Eventually you decide it’s not about the product, but about the process.” (Pei ended up posting all his novels online.)

Meng is a department administrator and was until recently a journal editor — positions that have allowed him to understand the process of rejection “from the other side,” he said.

“Once I became an editor, I became incredibly brutal” — obliged to review 400 papers a year and still maintain a 15 percent acceptance rate.

With perspective from both sides, Meng offered those suffering rejection what he called “three F-words” of advice: Forget it for 48 hours. Find a way to improve. And “forgive those who rejected you,” said Meng. “Sooner or later, with all your good intentions, you will reject others.”

Meng’s contribution to the booklet was a two-page “statistical theory of rejection.” Its five theorems were a wise invitation to relax.

“For any acceptance worth competing for,” one offered, “the probability of a randomly selected applicant being rejected is higher than the probability of being accepted.”

Another theorem stated what is both obvious and hard to accept: “The probability that you will be accepted for everything you compete for is zero.”

In the audience for the 90-minute panel were students standing at ground zero of a troubled economy, including several seniors 50 days from graduation (and still jobless).

One had been applying for work since February — and the rejections were piling up. She learned one thing, at least, she said. A Harvard degree is no guarantee of landing employment.

Lipson agreed. “There is no one,” she said, “who has never been rejected.”