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How to Use Rejection to Your Advantage

Rejection can feel like a gut punch when it happens. But what if you could take a moment to process, and then use rejection as rocket fuel for your professional success?

By
Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #633
The Quick And Dirty

Turning rejection into rocket fuel is simple if you follow these steps.

  • Separate you from the thing you wanted
  • Get meaningful feedback
  • Take action on that feedback
  • Stand in the spotlight and highlight what you've learned

My dad has this adorable habit of throwing his back out. It happens a few times a year, laying him up and leaving him in agony.

So, when he called me last week to report his latest dalliance with back pain, I attempted to brighten his day with some silver-lining-thinking. “Well,” I said, “at least you’re not missing out on anything this time around. Your whole world is in quarantine!”

He responded with a growl. Which led emotionally intelligent me to conclude that maybe this wasn’t the moment for silver linings. Sometimes you just want to stew in self-pity.

But sometimes the silver lining is the thing. And I will stand on the side of insisting that something that may feel painful in the moment can actually be a good thing, or at least a not-so-catastrophic one. And rejection is one of those things.

There is scientific research that shows we may experience the pain of rejection as real physical pain.

Rejection—not getting the job, not getting support for your idea, not getting the raise—leaves a gaping maw of a wound when it happens. And it’s not just in your mind. There is scientific research that shows we may experience the pain of rejection as real physical pain.

But if you can lick your wounds efficiently, there really is good to be found in rejection. You just need to harness its power and use it to your advantage.  

Let’s talk about how you can do this.

1. Separate YOU from the thing you wanted 

There’s an expression I love that goes “You can’t fit a round peg in a square hole.” A round peg presumably serves an important purpose. It just doesn’t fit in a square hole. 

The same logic applies to most professional moments of rejection.

When you’re faced with a “no,” start by recognizing it was not a rejection of you the person.

If you didn’t get the job, likely it means the fit just wasn’t right. Possibly a different skill or set of experiences was required for the role. Maybe a candidate with more years of leadership or knowledge of a particular program or system turned up. Their experience doesn’t invalidate yours, it just aligned better with that particular opportunity.

When you’re faced with a “no,” start by recognizing it was not a rejection of you the person. It was a matter of fit. You just need to focus on finding that square hole.

2. Get meaningful feedback

Sometimes rejection comes to you as a form letter or a gaping silence. But if your “no” comes from a human with a voice, then take the opportunity to ask for feedback.

Wait until you feel ready to approach a conversation rationally, not emotionally.

If the rejection was painful for you—and by the way, it’s OK if it was—then let a bit of time pass before you go on a quest for feedback. The messenger or decision-maker may not be their most objective if you show up as highly emotional or defensive. So wait until you feel ready to approach a conversation rationally, not emotionally, and then ask for feedback.

If you were rejected for a job, were there particular skills the winning candidate had that you didn’t? Did you say something off-putting in the interview?

If it was a product idea that prompted the no-thank-you, was there something specific missing from your pitch? Wrong target audience? Lack of clarity in implementation? Did the idea seem too labor-intensive? Or maybe the timing was wrong?

And oh, the dreaded rejection when you ask for a raise! A friend of mine recently went for it. She asked for more money, and the “no” felt like a punch in the gut. But when she found the courage to ask her boss for feedback, she learned she was already sitting at the top of the pay range for her title. This both gave her an ego boost and prompted her to polish up her resume, because earning more money was going to mean getting a new job. That was a valuable insight for her to have! 

3. Take action

After you receive a rejection, take a moment to recognize that you’re now in a position of power. You may not have gotten the job. But by asking for feedback, you know what is needed the next time an opportunity shows itself. All of your peers that didn’t take the risk of applying don’t have that information. This is now your advantage, so put it to good use.

What insight can you put into action? Is there a skill you need to start building? Or do you need practice interviewing? What did you learn about what made another candidate more compelling than you and how can you close that gap for next time?

This is how we turn rejection into rocket fuel.

Consider signing up for an online class or raising your hand to sit on a committee at work. Or start applying for external jobs just to get the interviewing practice.

Alternatively, you may have received feedback that inspires you to choose a different path altogether. Years ago, I applied for a job I thought I desperately wanted. It went instead to a colleague of mine. When I asked the hiring leader for feedback, she informed me they chose the other candidate because of her Project Management certification.

Boy did I dodge a bullet there! I can manage a project, but a project requiring an actual certification? That's clearly not for me. So the action I chose to take was to find a new aspiration. And I did.

Side note: I run my own business today. So that worked out well.

There are no right answers here. Your job is simply to take insight from the feedback and put it to good use. This is how we turn rejection into rocket fuel.

4. Stand in the spotlight

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? I’m still not sure. 

But perhaps a more practical (and less philosophical) question is this: If you take action on the feedback you’ve received but no one knows you’ve done so, have you taken effective action?

Visibility matters here. Maybe your boss told you he’s choosing not to fund your new product idea because he’s not convinced it will meet a critical need for your existing customers.

If you take action on the feedback you’ve received but no one knows you’ve done so, have you taken effective action?

OK, so what action are you taking? Maybe you’re planning to delve into some customer research—doing interviews and capturing the needs or problems they describe. Great idea! But once you’ve done this, be sure you circle back with your boss to share the insights you’ve gained.

By taking this step, you’re not only sharing valuable information with your boss, but you’re demonstrating the accountability you’ve taken as a result of his feedback.

The next time your boss is in search of a great idea—and someone who is going to be thoughtful and methodical in running with it—I’m willing to bet your name will be at the top of his list of contenders.

So now the time has come. I hope you’re feeling ready to put yourself out there. Because whether you get a yes or a no, you can be ready to celebrate the outcome.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.