There is a thick black binder crammed at the back of my office filing cabinet. The label down the spine reads: Thanks for coming out. Whenever I’m feeling lazy or listless about my research, I dig up that old binder, open it to a random page, and read one of the dozens of wonderful rejection letters that I’ve received over the years. They are all there, from the reviewers’ reports on the manuscript I submitted to Current Biology last month to the result of my first scholarship application, to that interview I never received for that lovely liberal arts college.
Some of the letters are courteous (“We are sorry to disappoint you on this occasion…”), others are cutting (“Certainly among the worst papers I’ve had the misfortune to read.”), and a few are painfully concise—“Rejected. Do not reapply.” But they all remind me of an important point: I’ve struck out much more than I’ve succeeded, so I must try again, try harder, and try often.
This self-help exercise may seem unnecessary and undue. But in an age of social media and online self-promotion, when we continuously broadcast our achievements and victories to the world while at the same time concealing our losses, it is easy to be fooled into thinking that success comes quickly, effortlessly, and frequently. The other day, I congratulated a colleague on the impressive number of papers she’d published in the past year (a fact that I gleaned from her personal website and research blog)¬. She grimaced and said, “If only you knew about the even greater number of papers that were rejected.” She went on to describe how all but two of her last 20 articles had been declined by at least one journal before getting published. “Some of the rejections are in the double digits,” she confided. “But, hey, better to have a paper rejected than no paper at all.”
It is our students who would most benefit from this type of knowledge. They often see the careers of their professors and mentors as the direct outcome of a long chain of uninterrupted accomplishments rather than the circuitous, setback-ridden road that most have endured. Perhaps we should be more forthcoming with our academic failures, and let students skim through our “black binders,” learn about the interviews we flunked, the manuscripts that lay in waste, and the grants that were burned at the stake.
I heard on the radio recently that at youth soccer tournaments across Canada there is a trend to give everyone a medal, even the losers. And it is well known that the Canadian education system is inching towards a no-fail policy. If we are to shield our children and students from failure and rejection, then we should at least make them aware of the cutthroat work environments that ultimately await them – environments where some – and more likely much – failure is guaranteed.
During my PhD, whenever I whined to my supervisor, Bob Lee, about a defeat at the lab bench or a bad review, he would say, “Embrace it, learn from it and remember that failure is a constant in academics and life. Those who can cope with rejection and forge ahead have a better chance of success.” Bob was never shy about revealing his own difficulties in traversing the academic landscape, and would regularly regale me with tales of research catastrophes and departmental politics. On graduation day, he shook my hand and said, “You don’t know what you’re getting into, Dr. Smith.” But I knew exactly what I was getting into because he’d been so candid about his own experiences.
It may not be smart to broadcast your failures and rejections online for all to see or to list them on your CV, but keep track of them – if anything, they make for excellent anecdotes in seminars and lectures. And if you find yourself in the role of teacher or mentor let your students know what you withstood to get to where you are today; they will thank you for it later.
Taped to the inside back cover of my black binder is a faded sticky note that my old cross-country ski coach, Dave Battison, stuck on my high-school locker after a particularly brutal performance. It says, “Buck up, Smitty. You may be short and slow, but when they knock you down, get up and go.” Good advice for anyone navigating the blistery trails of work and life.
David Smith is an assistant professor in the biology department at Western University.