The Upside of Rejection, Part II: A More Authentic Fit


Last time we discussed one benefit of being rejected from career-related opportunities:  making space for serendipity. Today we'll look at another upside I've experienced and observed:  how rejection allows - or perhaps forces? - us to find a path that is more authentic. Countless times I've seen my senior students chasing jobs or grad school paths that are, to the outside observer, awful fits for them. Sometimes it's due to an obsession with status, money, or impressing others, but even more often it's because they got stuck on a path that no longer matches their reality.

Upgrade Your Career Ideas

When we pick a field, we typically have a particular possible career path in mind. Problem is, this path is usually narrow, stereotypical, and not necessarily perfectly suited for us.


For instance, nearly every student who declares a psychology major says they're thinking of becoming a clinical psychologist. I did, too. But I'm not one. And neither are 85% of people who graduated as psychology majors.

This isn't because people are copping out. Well, maybe in some cases. But for the most part it's because as we get more exposure to a field, we learn about career paths we never even knew existed. And those paths, it turns out, may be a terrific fit for us.

The issue is that we often fail to update our ideas about possible careers when we get to the actual act of looking at job or grad school opportunities.

An Example of Rejection and Authenticity

For instance, after graduating, one of my students worked at a nonprofit doing textured, hands-on interventions for low-income families. She was generally happy in her work, but there was no room for growth so she decided to return to grad school after two years on the job.

Her decision to go to grad school was good. Her choice of grad program was, in a word, not.

PHD Comics

Unsurprisingly, she said she wanted to become a clinical psychologist. She'd said this since the day I met her. The thing is, she thought, behaved, and held the values of a social worker. So I told her so. But between status, parental expectations, income potential, and sheer momentum, the student stuck to her plan.

I supported her, of course, and helped her craft a personal statement to fit the intended path while rendering her experiences honestly. The resulting application packet was strong; she'd been an excellent student and it was clear she'd be skilled at anything she set her mind to. Still I worried that she would never be a great  psychologist- or, more importantly, a fulfilled one - because her heart wouldn't be  fully in the work.

Perhaps the grad programs felt the same way; all seven schools turned her down. When she told me about the rejections, she said she'd stay in her job for a year, retool her application packet, and submit to more clinical programs the next fall.

Over the course of that year, however, she did the hard work:  reflecting on her skills, interests, and values, and decoupling from her own and others' expectations for her. She realized that - lo and behold - she actually wanted to be a social worker. And when she finally applied to social work programs, they fell over each other trying to snatch her up. She has since made a rich, meaningful career in the field.

Don't Wait for Rejection to Find Your Authentic Fit

All in all, you can wait for the painful blow of rejections - or, more likely, rejectionS - to remind you to reevaluate your path, or you can be more proactive about it. My advice? Sidestep the pain. As much as we love to avoid introspection, isn't it worth sitting down every year and taking stock of your developing understanding of your field and where you see yourself fitting in if it'll save you a rejection (or two, or fifty-nine)?

New Year's is a good time for this annual "mental software upgrade," or set any anniversary that's personally meaningful to you. All that matters is that you stick to it.

And here's one less excuse:  when my new site ( launches on June 24th, you'll find a free little tool waiting there to guide you through the process.

With some proactive introspection, rejection doesn't have to be the wake up call to reconsider the path you're on. Though it could be worse; instead of being rejected from the wrong path, you could be accepted on it, only to wake up five, ten, fifteen years later and realize what a mistake it all was. You know, like I did.

On Friday we'll wrap up the rejection series with a discussion of motivation. See you there!

Every intro psych student thinks they'll be the next Freud. (And is it just me or does this Freud doll somehow evoke Abe Lincoln? Maybe that's Freudian of me...) (Photo credit: Ross Burton)

This is pretty funny. And true. In all seriousness, grad school can be the right path...just make sure you're going IN the right path. For you. (Photo credit: Taekwonweirdo)