The first time I tried to publish one of my stories I was 14 years old. I thought my novella was a masterpiece of action, adventure, and drama, set in the exotic landscape of Antarctica. My teacher gave my story an A+. My dad wrote a rave review. I was so proud of what I'd accomplished.
However, the editors at Penguin Books had a different opinion.
They were relatively polite in their reply. They commended me on my efforts at such a young age but said something about it "not being a good fit for them". Despite their sugarcoating, I knew what it meant: I'd been rejected.
My pride and excitement disappeared. I could feel my heart sinking inside my chest as the familiar voice of self-doubt whispered in my ear. While this wasn't my first experience of rejection (I had my fair share of social rejection during adolescence), it was my first 'professional' rejection. And it hit differently.
They weren't just rejecting my submission, they were rejecting all my hard work, my ideas, my writing style, my creativity. They were rejecting the things I was most proud of as a socially awkward kid.
Years later, when I entered the world of academia, you might think I'd be better equipped to handle such rejection. You'd be wrong.
The first article I submitted for publication in an academic journal was also rejected. It was my first experience of receiving detailed anonymous feedback on my work and it was brutal. Naturally, I internalised all those feelings of self-doubt again: "I must not be cut out for this industry. I don't belong here. If I can't publish papers I'll never get promoted."
But the funny thing about professional rejection, and the biggest difference between professional and social rejection, is that the first attempt is never the end of the story.
When my novella was rejected my parents comforted me as I cried my teenage eyes out. They still thought my story was great. They still loved my writing and creativity. And they encouraged me not to let this moment stop me from writing.
So, I took their advice and I wrote another story, a bigger and better story. At 16, I tried to get that one published too (it was also rejected). But I didn't stop there either. Over the years, I kept working on this story. I asked others to read drafts and give me honest feedback so I could learn and improve my writing style and storytelling. It took a while, but eventually, I submitted it for publication again. And again. And again. And again.
Twenty-two different publishers rejected my submission. But I only needed one to accept it. And one did.
Over 15 years after that initial experience of professional rejection, I finally published my first novel. If I had given up at that first or second (or twentieth) attempt, I wouldn't be where I am now.
A similar story unfolded with my first research paper. After my initial emotional response, I realised that there was only one course of action: Learn from my mistakes, rewrite the paper, and submit it somewhere else. The next journal didn't accept it straight away but after several rounds of revisions, they eventually agreed it met their standards.
As of today, almost 5 years later, I've published 16 academic papers. And not one of them was accepted on the first attempt.
Rejection itself is not inherently bad. It's essentially someone's opinion, that probably differs from yours and most likely differs from others too. The scariest thing about rejection is how you handle it. Some people are so afraid of being rejected that they don't try in the first place. Others see it as a roadblock, where once encountered, they stop in their tracks. The truth is, rejection is an opportunity and a speed bump at best.
Whether it's publishing or applying for a job (or even asking someone out on a date!), you're better off trying rather than sitting on the sidelines. Even if you aren't successful, you're exactly where you were when you started. You can always try again somewhere else. In most cases, you can probably learn from your initial attempt too.
Accepting rejection also gets easier with time and experience. Now, when my research papers are rejected from journals I: 1) save a copy of the reviewer's feedback, 2) re-write the paper (based on the feedback I agree with), and 3) find another journal that's a more suitable fit. To be honest, my initial reaction is usually still emotional. But I don't let those feelings stop me from moving forward.
At the end of the day, moving forward is the only thing that makes sense. Because what's the alternative? Rolling over and giving up? Never learning or improving or progressing? Have your emotional reaction. Embrace those feelings of frustration and self-doubt for a moment. Then fight back by trying again.