A Toast to All the Rejects

What a shared rejection spreadsheet taught me about success

An illustration of a hand holding a bubbling champagne glass, in front of a giant red X
The Atlantic

The gathering held last June at a park in Irvine, California, was not a standard toga party. Instead of undergraduates downing beer from Solo cups, the attendees were graduate students drinking champagne from plastic jeweled goblets. Crowned with laurel wreaths, wearing togas and Roman-emperor costumes, they honored something that rarely gets commemorated: rejection. More than 100 rejections. Grants, journal articles, fellowships—you name it, they’d been denied it.

This party was one component of a larger project devised by the cognitive-science professor Barbara Sarnecka and two of her graduate students to change their experience of professional rejection. Like many people, these academics often felt bruised by rejections and hid them from others. The approach they came up with—to track, share, and celebrate their rejections—flips our instincts upside down. Instead of shying away from rejection, they’re asking us to run straight toward it—and to do so together.

If you’ve ever searched for a job, repeatedly launching your résumé into the internet’s maw, you might have faced the question: How do you motivate yourself to keep applying for things you’re probably not going to get? In some professions, even getting a job doesn’t put an end to the applications. In academia, for example, there are articles to publish, grants to get, talks to deliver, awards to earn, and “you don’t get most of the things that you apply for,” Sarnecka, a professor at UC Irvine, told me.

For much of her career, if Sarnecka got a letter that she could tell was a rejection, she would stuff it in her desk drawer for two weeks before she could bring herself to read it in full. “It was like a stinky thing that after two weeks was not as stinky,” she said. In the time it’s taken her to acquire the security of tenure, Sarnecka has come to treat rejection less like socks that need to air out and more like a manageable reality of her work.

Many of us aren’t so evolved. Mark Leary, a professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University who studied rejection for decades, says that rejection threatens our self-esteem and our sense of belonging. What surprised Leary during his research is how exquisitely sensitive people are to rejection. Researchers have even found that many of the same networks in our brain that activate in response to physical pain are also stimulated when we feel rejected by others. Hurt feelings really hurt.

Sarnecka wanted to weaken the power rejection had to wound her and her colleagues and sap them of motivation. She thought it would help to place value on attempts in and of themselves. Creating something that can be turned down takes discipline and courage, so there’s reason to feel pride for each rejection.

Many of the reasons submissions get rejected have nothing to do with their quality. Ashley Thomas, a former graduate student in Sarnecka’s lab who’s now a postdoctoral fellow at MIT, gave me an example of the mercurial nature of academic laurels. In 2018, she was offered a competitive and prestigious National Science Foundation grant but declined it in order to use another grant she had received. Later Thomas reapplied for the same NSF grant for the same project with what she says was a virtually identical proposal, just with new data that should have made the application stronger. This time, she was rejected. If she hadn’t already gotten an acceptance, she might have believed that she had put together a weak application. Experiences like this one have helped Thomas see that acquiring professional accolades is often a numbers game. She told me that she has shifted her focus to the part of the process she can control: the attempts, not the outcomes.

When Darby Vickers told her friend that she hadn’t gotten a fellowship she applied to, it had already been a couple of weeks since she’d heard the bad news, but the stench was still on the rejection. Her friend, Emily Sumner, had recently created a spreadsheet for the lab she worked in with Thomas and Sarnecka that they called a “Rejection Collection.” Sumner suggested that Vickers log the lost fellowship there, but Vickers couldn’t see how it would make her feel better. Sumner tried to egg her on by saying that if she added her rejection, she would get the group one step closer to a party—every 100 rejections, they had a party. A party to celebrate rejections, Vickers thought, was absurd.

Sumner sent Vickers the spreadsheet anyway. When Vickers scrolled through the reel of rejections, she saw that Sarnecka, who is clearly a successful scientist, had gotten rejected for grants. She saw that students on the verge of earning their Ph.D.s had been rebuffed for jobs. By the time she read through the 48 rejections already in the document, Vickers’s rejection felt minor in comparison. What’s more, those rows on the spreadsheet rejiggered her conception of success. “I had always assumed that once you were successful, you would just continue to be successful eternally somehow,” she told me. Here was evidence that the lives of the successful could be littered with rejection.

This is perhaps the greatest service the rejection collection provides: It offers information about how often other people are getting rejected in a world where those numbers are hard to come by. I was handed this reality check after I joined a rejection collection that my friend Roseanna Sommers, a law professor at the University of Michigan, decided to set up last New Year’s Day. Unlike Vickers, I knew everyone who submitted to our spreadsheet quite well. In some ways, that amplified my surprise at what I saw. I’d pull up our Google spreadsheet to record the latest residency or editor or award that had turned me down and would discover that my friends had recently received rejections that I wouldn’t have otherwise known about. I was close enough to them to be up to date on the good news. But I hadn’t known about everything they had shot for and hadn’t gotten.

Believing, as I did, that other people are succeeding far more than we are is part of why we feel ashamed when we fail. A common response to that shame is to keep rejections to ourselves. Other people don’t know our scorecards, and that encourages them to keep quiet too. It’s a type of coordination problem—no one wants to be the first to reveal their rejections lest they be seen as incapable.

With such distorted ideas about how routine rejection is, people may attribute their insecurity to issues such as imposter syndrome. “When you call something a ‘syndrome,’ it implies that there’s something wrong with the … thinking of the person who feels like an imposter,” Sarnecka said. But given the data people typically have access to, she thinks their insecurity is a reasonable belief. Imagine, she said, that there are 100 people in your department and everyone, including you, has a 90 percent rejection rate. Those around you would probably tell you only about their acceptances. That means that in the same period in which you received one acceptance, you’d hear about 100 acceptances that your peers claimed. “Of course you’re going to feel like you’re not doing as well as everybody else,” Sarnecka said.

A rejection collection interrupts the loop of secrecy, misinformation, and insecurity by creating a norm of openness. In this way it’s a spiritual cousin to a more widely known approach to normalizing rejections: a “failure CV.” This idea gained steam in 2016 when a psychology professor, then at Princeton University, published an inventory of his rejections, which he called his “CV of Failures.” (In the “Meta-Failures” section, he writes, “This darn CV of Failures has received way more attention than my entire body of academic work.”) Academics who post failure CVs make rejection visible and, in doing so, show that rejection is an ordinary part of a career.

The primary difference between a rejection collection and a failure CV is the former’s emphasis on the collective. Vickers observed that a “CV is about the narrative of you,” whereas the rejection collection “isn’t all about you.” It’s about the effort of the group. And though publicly posting a list of the honors you didn’t get is brave, it doesn’t necessarily ease the distress of dealing with rejection in the moment. When I told Leary, the psychology professor, about the rejection collection, he thought that the communal dimension of it made it a particularly effective response to rejection. While rejection threatens our sense of belonging and heightens worries about how others see us, the rejection collection affirms that we belong. The irony, he noted, is that you’re accepted to the group based on being rejected.

About a month after Vickers added her rejection to the collection in the winter of 2018, the group crossed the 100-rejections mark. A party was in order. Sarnecka hosted it at her house, and everyone burned a printout of one of their rejections in her fireplace. Then they delivered three toasts, which have become a tradition at these rejection parties. First, they toast to themselves for trying; second, to the people who rejected them for the thankless work of evaluating their applications; and third, to the people who got whatever it was they had wanted because, as Sarnecka puts it, “all of us who are sincerely trying to understand the world and teach others are on the same team.”

Three years later, Sarnecka threw the Mount Olympus–themed rejection party in Vickers’s honor—Vickers had finished her Ph.D. in ancient Greek philosophy and was moving on from UC Irvine. Like others I spoke with, Vickers now feels less shame about rejections and doesn’t see them as a reflection of her worth in other people’s eyes. She’s also come to embrace the feedback that can accompany rejection. She puts projects in front of people sooner than she would have in her pre-rejection-collection days. Vickers has persuaded other philosophers to join rejection collections, and has found that her field, which had seemed so secretive and individualistic, now feels more open and collaborative. Certainly, if academia had more funding and jobs to go around, Vickers and her peers wouldn’t have to stare down so many no’s. But they’d still benefit from knowing how to handle rejection.

Ongoing applications aren’t as woven into many professions as they are into academia. Still, it seems likely that most people will have an experience—whether they are changing jobs or trying to build up a side hustle—that requires them to withstand rejections in order to achieve the thing they’re after. In my rejection-collection group—which includes a poet, a person considering a career transition, and another who joined months into her job search after being laid off during the pandemic—I’ve seen how rejection stings less when it’s reframed as progress and handled communally. I’ve also observed how the collection encourages people to increase their submissions. When you see how much effort your fellow rejectees are putting in, it’s hard not to feel proud of their attempts, and motivated to put yourself out there more.

When my group gathered on Zoom for our rejection-collection party in October 2021, I explained how I could feel the collection affecting my ambitions. I wondered whether emphasizing the numbers game and celebrating our losses might push us to try for ever more gold stars, to feel unsatisfied with the success we’ve already attained. Roseanna Sommers, our ringleader, had a response. She said that the point isn’t to add more lines to the collection or our CVs. It’s to take bigger risks and ensure that rejection isn’t trimming our sails. She wanted the collection to give us a question that we could use to guide our decisions: What would I chase after if I weren’t afraid of rejection?