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How to handle rejection in your professional life

I have received a lot of noes in my life. In elementary school, I wasn’t selected for the safety patrol team. In middle school, I was told I couldn’t take advanced math, even though my grades were excellent. At university, I was advised that I shouldn’t pursue degrees in both mathematics and anthropology. Over and over, I was informed that no, nein, la, nyet, I would not get the fellowship, opportunity, or experience I desired. Later, when I entered the professional world, I applied for jobs and was told no. As a freelance writer, I pitched stories to editors and was told no. I proposed ideas for collaboration, consultation, and even conversation, and was told no.

And yet, the noes haven’t held me back. Instead, they’ve served as an inspiration to me. Whenever I get a no, I view it as an invitation—to explore new ways to collaborate, perhaps at another time. It’s a chance to be more creative in thinking about the value I can offer or problems I can solve for another party. Or, a no may be a notification that my communication tactics and methods need to be sharpened, if I am to clarify what I can provide.

Most importantly, noes ignite my persistence. And if there is one element that has driven my professional life, it is that I am persistent. It’s not that I won’t take no for an answer. It’s more that I want to understand what is driving the no, and to see how I might be able to work through and around the issue. In many cases, a no is simply a case of bad timing. It might not be the right time to partner with someone, or there might be a lack of resources. I look at a no not as a dead end—but as the beginning of a conversation about a possible alliance.

For example, a few years ago, I reached out to an organization to suggest that we have an informal conversation about collaborating. I didn’t get a response. So I waited 1 week and sent a follow-up email. Crickets. Then I called and left a voicemail. Nada. Finally, I said to myself, “I am going to go full throttle” and I re-sent the email not only to the first person I had reached out to but also to several others, including the executive director. I was polite and figured I had nothing to lose. Sure enough, sometime later, the original target of my correspondence emailed me. He apologized for his lack of communication, indicated that timing was the issue, and told me that an opportunity to partner was afoot. This led to a speaking gig and, ultimately, to a long-term partnership that I still have with this organization to this day.

I used a similar approach when I received another no that I just couldn’t let go of. I wanted to write about Elon Musk for a physics magazine, given that he has a degree in physics. I approached his public relations people to request an interview with him, and the answer was loud and clear: No. But I didn’t take it personally. I kept in mind that he’s a busy person, and that perhaps his team would reconsider at a later date. When I decided to try again a year later, I was more courageous in my approach. I emailed every communications professional listed on his company websites. The responses—and I’m paraphrasing—included:

No.

Absolutely No.

Are you nuts?

A “can’t deliver email” notification.

Um … maybe.

Ah! A maybe was all I needed! That opened the door to convincing Musk’s team to grant me time for an interview.

To help you be persistent in the face of noes, I’d like to share a few rules that I’ve learned:

Don’t take the no personally. It’s just business. Pull emotion out of the no and don’t allow yourself to feel dejected, demeaned, or devalued because someone rejects your application or says that they don’t see an opportunity to work with you. A no does not mean that you weren’t qualified for a job or collaboration. As I mentioned earlier, it may have been a case of bad timing. Or they may have received 500 applications for one job.

Don’t shy away from being persistent. Persistence in the face of challenges, failures, and unexpected scenarios is the mark of a good employee—and prospective employers notice that. There’s nothing wrong with a follow-up email or phone call. Who knows? It may even get you noticed as displaying a valuable attribute.

Be respectful. You won’t get anywhere if you respond to a rejection with a hurt or bitter response. Honor the other person. Don’t burn bridges. And don’t be rude and contact them every 5 minutes. This advice is especially important now, amid the COVID-19 crisis—because there will likely be even more noes during this period, as well as a delayed timeline on responses. In times of crisis, you should wait even longer to follow up with prospective employers or collaborators, and you should be even more respectful in your responses. Even if the ultimate response is no, let the other party know that you are still interested in working with them in the future should an opportunity arise.

Take the no and pivot. Instead of dwelling on the negative outcome, think positively about what other services you might be able to offer to the other party. Case in point: Many years ago, I was invited to apply for a promotion at the university for which I worked. I applied thinking that I was guaranteed the position, only to be told at the end that the role was offered to someone else. My response? I sent a thank-you card to the dean and offered to be of assistance in any way I could with the new employee. I met with her and shared insight into the university’s structure and culture. Then, a few months later, when the employee moved to a new role, I was hired in her place. Looking back, I believe that my offer to help despite the fact that I wasn’t selected for the position initially made a world of difference.

Be aware of cultural norms. Keep in mind that cultural norms regarding persistence vary. In some countries, it’s perfectly OK to email someone twice a month to keep in touch with them, whereas in other countries, that might be seen as rude and invasive. When I studied abroad in Egypt, I noticed that people took time to get to know one another—even sharing personal stories about their families—before starting to discuss details regarding how they could work together. In the United States, in contrast, I find that people are more likely to dive straight into business talk. So, study up on the culture in which you want to engage and respect its rules.

I will continue to receive noes throughout my life, as will you. But I’m not afraid of them. I’ve built up my resistance to noes by being persistent—and for me, that’s been an important element of my career advancement and professional development. In fact, a collaborator once said to me: “I’m sorry I took so long to respond. I imagine your persistence is what makes you so successful.”

Concepts in this column come from and build on the author’s previous published works, including articles, speeches, and her book titled Networking for Nerds.

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