The idea this week: getting rejected from jobs can be crushing — but learning how to deal with rejection productively is an incredibly valuable skill.
I’ve been rejected many, many times. In 2015, I applied to ten PhD programs and was rejected from nine. After doing a summer internship with GiveWell in 2016, I wasn’t offered a full-time role. In 2017, I was rejected by J-PAL, IDinsight, and Founders Pledge (among others). Around the same time, I was so afraid of being rejected by Open Philanthropy, I dropped out of their hiring round.
I now have what I consider a dream job at 80,000 Hours: I get to host a podcast about the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them. But before getting a job offer from 80,000 Hours in 2020, I got rejected by them for a role in 2018. That rejection hurt the most.
I still remember compulsively checking my phone after my work trial to see if 80,000 Hours had made me an offer. And I still remember waking up at 5:00 AM, checking my email, and finding the kind and well-written — but devastating — rejection: “Unfortunately we don’t think the role is the right fit right now.”
And I remember being so sad that I took a five-hour bus ride to stay with a friend so I wouldn’t have to be alone. After a few days of wallowing, I re-read the rejection email and noticed a lot of specific feedback — and a promising path forward.
“We’re optimistic about your career in global prioritisation research and think you should stay in the area and build experience,” they said. “We’re not going anywhere, and could be a good career transition for you further down the line.”
I took their advice and accepted a job offer at Rethink Priorities, which also does global priorities research. And a year and a half later, 80,000 Hours invited me to apply for a job again.
It’s hard to say what would’ve happened had I not opened myself to rejection in 2018, but it seems possible I’d be in a pretty different place. While that rejection was really painful, the feedback I got was a huge help in moving my research career forward. I think there’s an important lesson here.
For me, rejection is one of the worst feelings. But whether you’re like me, looking to work in global priorities research at small nonprofits, or interested to work in another potentially impactful path, getting rejected can come with unexpected benefits:
- When you get rejected from a role you thought was a good fit, you get more information about your strengths and weaknesses. It can indicate whether you need more career capital or should perhaps consider different types of roles or paths altogether.
- When applying for roles in an ecosystem you want to work in, you grow the number of people in that field who know you and who might reach out to you for future jobs — or recommend you for similar roles at other organisations.
- When you open yourself up to rejection and move past it, you learn you can tolerate hard feelings and put yourself out there again.
But these don’t make rejection hurt less in the short term — which makes learning to cope with rejection well worth doing.
Here’s what I’ve learned helps me cope:
- I try to tell my friends in advance when I’m applying for something and let them know about the outcome. Not hiding my rejections from people close to me helps me feel less ashamed and get support.
- Not every rejection has a special meaning or evidence of your abilities. Hiring is an imperfect and imprecise process everywhere. So you’ll often get rejected for no good reason at all.
- I remind myself of lessons I’ve learned in therapy — things like:
- “If I’m not getting rejected, I’m not being ambitious enough.”
- “Just because I’m not right for this role doesn’t mean I can’t add value in another one.”
- “This rejection hurts, but I’m proud that I was brave enough to put myself out there.”
Once I’ve processed the immediate feelings of sadness, I try to figure out what, if anything, to learn from the rejection. I find this not only helpful, but empowering — it makes me feel like I can turn some of the pain of the rejection into strength and growth.