I get rejected at least one to two times a week. In busier periods, this can often be closer to five to fifteen rejections a week. These rejections come in many shapes and forms: internship applications, fellowship applications, cold-email/DM requests, you name it. Anything you can get rejected from, I probably have done so.
I’m going to convince you
a. why it’s ok to get rejected
b. why you should get rejected often
In the past, I used to be devastated by rejections because I thought they were a reflection of my self-worth or achievement. “I didn’t get into X because I’m not good enough.”
In reality, there are hundreds of variables that come into play here (most notably, a good amount of luck) but we don’t like complex systems. We like simple ones. So understanding the nuances can be tricky.
In fact, there’s a whole field of literature around this when it comes to finding explanations in science. Occum’s razor is a theory that says “the simplest solution that explains something is probably the correct one.” In theory, this usually works well. As people trying to rationalize decisions, this works incredibly poorly. For example, someone who has no idea of what gravity is may conclude that the wind is why things fall when you drop them.
The problem with finding simple explanations is that they are not calibrated against our knowledge and biases. If we have faulty evidence, our inferences (what we conclude) are likely going to be wrong.
This happens all the time when we think about rejections. I realized that it didn’t make sense concluding why I got rejected when I have no idea of what happened behind the scenes. Maybe I wasn’t good enough. Maybe I was. Maybe I got unlucky. Maybe I got lucky. When I realized that there were hundreds of variables out of my control, I took a step back. Suddenly, it felt silly to try and rationalize or conclude why something happened the way it did. More importantly, it meant that a rejection did not say anything about who I am as a person or what my future would look like.
Some of the best opportunities and experiences I’ve had happened on a whim. I applied to something I didn’t think I’d have a shot at landing, I reached out to someone who I’d been following for a long time, and I met my best friend by accident.
I’ve realized that there is no upper bound on the number of cool things to do and the number of cool people you can meet. But these experiences, opportunities, and people have to be sought after. You have to intentionally seek them out. You have to “shoot your shot.”
Critically, there is an asymmetric upside when you do this. That means you lose very little on your side in terms of time and effort (when you apply, cold-email someone etc.) but there is no upper bound on what you may potentially gain! That is, the upside is unlimited! In fact, this is exactly the model that angel investors and venture capital firms operate on. They invest in many companies that they think will succeed - some of these may fail, others may be stagnant. But the very few, the one or two (or more) that go on to become million/billion dollar businesses generate the majority of their revenue. They’re the ones that generate 10,000x+ returns which dwarf all of the other losses and gains.
The same principle holds across all domains. People who launch successful companies, develop relationships with people they never would have otherwise met, apply to grants/internships/funding and so forth. So when there’s so much to gain and so little to lose, the question should never be why, it should always be why not?
Doing cool things and meeting cool people is a priority that I optimize for. Ironically, this also means I encounter failure and rejection more often. Most of the time, I’m indifferent about the rejections. Some of the time, I’m absolutely crushed. As much as I’d like to adopt a Stoic attitude towards getting rejected, I recognize that this is difficult in practice. However, the main takeaway isn’t that you shouldn’t feel sad when you get rejected. It’s that you should never let it stop you from shooting your shot.