Tuesday, July 1, 2014

How To Deal With Rejection

Being rejected is one of the worst feelings in the world. Wrapping all that you are and all that you can be into a nice shiny package, only to find the package returned at your doorstep with a post-it note stuck on it essentially saying: "Sorry, you're not wanted."

I have had my own share of rejections. Taken a few leaps, and fell flat on my bottom. The butt-ache easily subsides, but not the blow to my pride and confidence. It's cliche, I know, to say that we should pick ourselves up each time we fall. The difficult part is figuring out what to do and where to go next. There is no hard and fast rule on how to deal with rejection. Over the years, I have picked up a few tips and tricks. Here are some notable anecdotes that fondly come to my mind... 

(Disclaimer: This article does NOT address rejection in the context of romance - that deserves a special analysis on its own)  

How to deal with a broken, rejected heart - sing at the wedding of that clueless bitch, that's how!

Illustration taken from the music video of Taeyang's 'Wedding Dress' (Feel free to watch it, if you're in the mood to cry buckets of tears)

"I'm Not Good Enough, And Need To Work Harder"

Acknowledging one's flaws is never an easy task. Denial is our first reflex. And even when we grudgingly admit defeat, we are seldom bold enough to assess the real causes of where we went wrong.

I studied at a local university. But things might have turned out very differently, had I not been rejected by the prestigious National University of Singapore (NUS) - or rather, had I not screwed up so badly in my application. I was a callow youth of 20. I aced my STPM (a pre-university A-Level equivalent exam), and thought myself smarter than my teachers (probably true, but given the laughable quality of education in Malaysia, that doesn't mean much). I swaggered across the Causeway, with no preparation whatsoever except for my packing my own luggage.

The interview went on fine. I wasn't overawed, I didn't stammer. The exam that followed, however, was a disaster. I remember the question clearly - criminalisation of marital rape. Seems like an easy question, right? Not to me, at that time - my knowledge about the law was limited to the vague notion that "bad people go to jail" (which, as I later learnt, is not entirely true). I fumbled and waffled through my answer. I bombed, big time.

It's one of my biggest regrets in life that haunts me till today - not furthering my education overseas. But four years later, aged 24, an older and wiser me embarked on a journey of redemption. NUS in collaboration with Singapore Law Review (SLR) organised the 'International Writing Symposium' - a competition where law students worldwide submit an academic paper first in writing, then orally before a panel of adjudicators.

For a semester and a half, I toiled alone. The competition was new, and there was nowhere or nobody I could turn to for advice. A journey into the unknown, with no certainty of reaping any fruits from my hard labour. I submitted my piece anyway, and lo and behold, I was called to attend the symposium in NUS, along with seven others from Australia (2), Scotland, India (2), the Philippines and Singapore.

Eventually, I emerged in third place behind the two Aussies, ahead of NUS. My heart swelled an inch larger. That moment, I realised how far I had progressed from a wide-eyed village hero to an international fighter. And I made it because I took the rejection as a painful lesson that I wasn't good enough, and that I had a lot to work on to be better than I was.

The prize of finishing third is a trophy and USD1,000. Not complaining at all. 

"I'll Swallow My Pride, And Take Up The Second Offer"

Ever been put on a standby list? Or get rejected initially, and then offered a few weeks later? How about if it happened at your very first job application? How do you think you'd feel? Depressed? Confused? Angry? Pinching your arms in desperate hope you would wake up from the horrible dream?

Well, it happened to me, and that's how I felt. 

Even months before graduation, it was normal for students to apply for jobs and accept conditional offers. By this time, after four years in law school, I had regained the swagger in my step. I was ready to take on the world. I regularly attended career talks, talked to seniors, and did my own research. There were five firms on my shortlist. I was also very clear in my mind which was my number one choice. I sent my resumes to all of them, and got called for interviews. I put on a good show, so I thought. 

The offers came thick and fast from all firms... except my first choice.

For days, I raged. I imagined all kinds of silly scenarios: How they would apologise profusely and beg me to join then upon turning successful, but I would turn them down. How I would battle them in court, and batter them into submission. And then, I got a call from them. A partner who knew me from the career talks was on the line. The offer came, together with some explanation about some mistake. Not quite true, I knew. Four of my other course-mates got offered the first time round, but not me. Last-minute intervention was at play.

How did I react? I was torn, of course. This wasn't how I envisage landing my first job would be. I expected to be waltzing in on a red carpet, not sneaking through some back alley door. I still felt sore for missing the first cut. Oh, and my second choice even offered me a job on the spot.

In the end, I swallowed my pride, and joined the firm that had rejected me once. And I went on to work in the firm far longer than my other four course-mates who also accepted the job. Which goes to show that: (a) recruitment managers aren't always a good judge on character; and (b) I'm quite a forgiving person.

In life, we might get rejected, for the right or wrong reasons. Either way, don't dwell too much into your rejections; instead, focus on your future opportunities. Don't take things personally, be professional.

In short, the letter says: "YOU SUCK!"

"I Shouldn't Give A Shit, And I Deserve Better"

And then there are times in life when you shouldn't give a shit about being rejected, because the people rejecting you are just plain idiots (like that clueless bitch in the wedding dress above). When you're older and wiser, you know your true worth better than anyone else. What I tell myself is this: "If they can't see how good I am, then they're not good enough for me." Sounds suspiciously like the arrogant 20-year old Raphael talking here - but no, I'm 30 now and flying high like a pelican fly.

Almost two years ago, I landed myself a nice job. I now have more room to grow, more leaders to learn from, more time to ponder about the existential mysteries of the universe. That's the success story I tell people, when asked "how's life?". But not many know of the little story shortly before it.

I was casually looking for jobs. Sent a few resumes here, talked to a few people informally. Nothing serious, just testing the waters. And then a headhunter approached me with an eye-catching proposition - a vacancy at a local public-listed company having a well-known household brand. I sat through my first official interview in 4 years.

I'm not sure what I did wrong. Maybe my tie colour tie was off, maybe my handwriting on the answer sheet was unintelligible, maybe letting the headhunter 'polish' my resume was a bad idea, maybe coming slightly late was a straight strike-out (their office was at some unfamiliar remote location, okay?). They didn't even get back to me on whether I pass or fail the interview. Yes, they actually left me hanging. How rude!

Anyway, screw them. I didn't spare much thought about what went wrong. If anything did go wrong, it's their problem, not mine. I'm on the right track, I'll just keep doing my thing. And true enough, not too long after, I struck gold. 

Don't let the 'local experts' and 'village headmen' hold you back. Don't conform to the mediocre standards that others beside you, and even on top of you, set for themselves. You're above all that. You deserve better.

Striking gold, up in the air

From Rejection, To Redemption

If you've never been rejected in your life, it means you haven't tried hard to push your limits to chase your dreams. If you can't deal with rejection, you can't deal with challenges.

We all like to swim in shallow waters and walk down well-trodden paths, so to save ourselves from the pain and humiliation of failure. That's no way to live your life at all. It only is, if you're happy living a life of repressed ambitions and unrealised potential.

Flirt with rejection, fight for redemption. That's how I live my life. After all, life's more fun and fulfilling that way.


  1. Hmm how about a person who simply has low expectations in life? That person who is genuinely happy with playing safe, not taking risks and not putting himself 'out there' in order to minimise the chances of getting rejected, for example. Perhaps you can argue that he is not 'living'. Paradoxically you can argue that he IS living because he is happy with choosing to lead a relatively non-risky lifestyle. Am I making sense? Haha. I'm not disagreeing with your POV. In fact, I admire those like you who strive for challenges, especially career-wise. Personally, I tend to not take risks in terms of my career. Perhaps it's a weakness. Or perhaps it's because I tend to direct all my risk-taking skills towards romantic pursuits - which I won't deliberate any further of course. Well, not until you come out with your analysis on rejected romance (as you have mentioned in this article) then I would gladly share my opinion again :) Anyway, another simple yet well-thought-out article. Looking forward to the next one.

  2. We can be happy with the small and simple things in life, of course. But even when we are happy, we should ask ourselves: "Is this as good as it gets?". We all have our potential and purpose in life, and the way I see it (as will most religious and lifestyle gurus preach as well), it would be a shame if we do not maximise that potential and fulfil that purpose.

    We all strive for something more, something special, in life - be it in work, in love, in religion, etc. We will prioritise one over the other - which entails into taking more risks, suffering more, and facing more rejection in one, but not the other. It doesn't always need to be about work - but seeing that work takes up almost half of waking hours, it's as good as any place to start! So even if you tend to play it safe in work, but go all out in love, that's fine - at least there's still something in life you're fighting for.

    Thanks for your feedback, Hana. And yes, there'll be something about love coming up soon! :)

  3. You're right there. I guess it all boils down to the question of contentment. Each person's level of contentment varies, no? Well live and let live, I say :) I'm pretty sure you agree with that sentiment hehe.