High school students in the US are tackling the brutal process of college applications with rejection parties, the New York Times reported last week. At one school, students bring along a printout of their college rejections, ceremonially feed them into a shredder, and then get ice cream; there is a prize for the most rejected. It sounds wonderful: a cathartic, collective “screw you” to a broken system, using fun to salve the pain.
I wonder if owning rejection is easier in the US, where there is at least a partial sense that failure is OK; it’s considered a learning opportunity and a key part of the origin story. The Silicon Valley motto “fail fast, fail often” took hold because failure was seen as indicative of audacity and a willingness to try. Rejection is a particularly stinging subset of failure, but the principle remains: you took the shot; it didn’t pay off; you try again.
The issue with that narrative – and with lots of failosophy – is that it implies a redemptive arc, a high point from which you can point back to the days in the doldrums and say: look at me now. But life is generally a haphazard stagger around, rather than a cinematic journey – and we know that, really. I think this is why the basketball player Giannis Antetokounmpo’s angrily articulate response to a question about whether his season was a failure went viral: “Some days you’re able to be successful, some days you’re not … Simple as that.”
The maturity and emotional honesty of these kids are shaming and inspiring. I have always hidden my rejections like dirty secrets and done everything I can to avoid getting more – meaning, of course, that I never take the shot.
There are few things I could have learned more valuably at school than how to manage rejection sanely; I genuinely think it would have changed my life. Given that Rishi Sunak is interested only in introducing mandatory maths until 18 for pupils in England, perhaps we need to get better at accepting and owning rejection as adults. Unfortunately, the prevalent method of turning someone down in freelance journalism is deafening silence, which doesn’t give me much to shred.