Several months ago, I read an article by Blair Braverman in Outside magazine, in which she encouraged her readers to make rejections valuable to them. In answering a reader’s Dear Abby-style letter, Blair said “Turn applying for big dreams into your hobby.” She encouraged her reader to set a goal for the number of rejections she wants to receive and to pick something indulgent to do or buy for herself when she reached it. In doing so, she’ll make the rejections valuable.
Blair is an Iowa-trained writer and musher (she completed the Iditarod earlier this year), so I trust that she knows a lot about making attempts and failing.
When I read Blair’s article, I was feeling stuck in a couple of areas of my life and frustrated that some of my big goals don’t seem anywhere closer to being accomplished. Her letter made sense to me in a way similar advice from my writing professors never had. I read the article through several times, picked an arbitrary number (12), and set about getting rejected.
I made my case to my boss for a perk I really wanted. I reached out to an old friend who might not want to talk. I applied to do something cool in my community.
When I was sailing along, searching out new possibilities, applying, then moving on to the next idea, I felt really good about my rejections. I was dropping baited line after baited line, just to see how many I could do. But the first time someone called me back, the first time I didn’t get a “no” but a “tell me more,” the game changed. I’d had a nibble. So I pulled hard. The reel sung as I worked it. I stopped applying to do other interesting things. Instead, I got excited about this possibility, told a couple of friends my hopes, and kept working the line. I ignored the others and didn’t put any more in the water. Why waste the effort if this one paid off and necessarily took up a big chunk of my attention and energy for a while?
Then that fish, too, got away.
And I was disappointed. All my attempts to that point had turned into rejections, and I was steadily building toward 12 of them, but I would much rather have had this exciting opportunity work out than to be one step closer to getting a pedicure. (The planned reward had been a new purse, but Tyler got me a lovely one for my birthday.)
So I told my close friends that it hadn’t worked out after all. I sat with my (and their) disappointment. I considered how important I’d let this one hope become to me. I still wasn’t applying to anything new, telling myself that I needed time to grieve the loss of this “maybe.” (I’ve been reading a memoir about counseling, so this seemed like a very reasonable plan at the time.)
Finally, I went back and read Blair’s article again. Near the end, this paragraph seemed to have been written with font twice as large,
Instead of being disappointed when things don’t work out, be happily surprised when they do. The best way to do this is to have a lot going on at once. If you’re focusing your hope on a single opportunity—and of course, there will always be opportunities you want more than others—then you’ll naturally be devastated when it doesn’t come to pass. But if you have a dozen things going on, and you’re applying for more every week, then by the time you hear “no,” you’ve already moved on to something else.
I still felt disappointed that this bubble of hope I’d nurtured for so many weeks had come to mark just a single tally on the post-it note by my desk. I also recognize that if I hadn’t focused so much on this one dream, I wouldn’t have felt so hurt when it didn’t work out. But I think Blair would disagree that all I got out of the experience was a tally mark.
Earlier in the article, Blair said,
Treat everything as information. If an editor gives you feedback, implement it before your next round of submissions. If you interview for a job you’re obsessed with, figure out what it is that appeals so much. Maybe that job means prestige, or solitude, or working with friends. Maybe you didn’t realize how badly you wanted to live in Montana until you got rejected from a job in Montana. Great—that’s important information. That’s how you figure out what you really want.
So why did losing this one opportunity hurt me so much? What about it had appeal to me so much? Without going into too much detail, I decided that its newness alone was very appealing. I have said for years that I’m afraid of getting into ruts and afraid of feeling stuck. This opportunity would have helped me feel fresh and useful, stretching skills I haven’t used in a while to help people in a way I miss.
Okay, I told myself. That’s really useful information. And after I sat with that comfort for a minute (it’s a very good book about counseling), I named for myself the things I’d learned just by applying to this opportunity, then what I’d learned just by being in conversation with someone about it. I thought of two things I could do differently next time, and a couple things I’d like to get better at regardless. Finally, feeling much better overall, I asked myself, So what kind of opportunities should we apply for next?
The next old friend I reached out to did want to talk—not a tally, but a yes! But, I didn’t hear back about the next opportunity I applied to, which involved being paid to watch a ton of Christmas movies in a short period of time. I don’t know how many book giveaways I’ve entered (these I’m not counting toward my goal number, but they do count as lines in the water). I’m working on a new pitch for a blog idea. And as the year winds down and I struggle to wind down with it, I’m happy with all of these things.
“Most things in life don’t work out,” Blair said, “But some do. The secret is to love the possibilities.”