What to do When You Screw Up
(This essay was originally published in the electronic Newsletter for the Honors Program for the College of Letters and Science at UC Santa Barbara in Winter 2009.)
Many people mistake me for a successful person, so I try to keep a record of all my failures, and for reasons that will become clear later in this essay. True failure and rejection didn’t begin for me until late adolescence: when I applied for college, I got just one rejection letter, but it felt like getting kicked swiftly in the head. My first paper in college was in a Rhetoric class—this one felt like a ton of bricks, and so I saved that below-average paper, which still has that C- in the awful, stark handwriting of my TA. In my sophomore year, the girl I fell in love with dumped me by phone, and it was too bad that she hadn’t sent me a “Dear John” letter because I would have kept that, too. It would have been a short letter, as her conversation with me lasted about two minutes. But things weren’t always so bad in college: I did pretty well, so well that the Deans nominated me for the Truman Scholarship, the Marshall Scholarship, and the Rhodes Scholarship. I didn’t get any of them, though, but the rejections came on super nice letterhead that still hasn’t yellowed. Standardized tests weren’t typically a problem, but the first time I took the LSAT, I threw up right before the exam, and so I scored somewhere in the neighborhood of a gifted fifth grader. Oh, I took more exams and I went to graduate school, but once I was there, I had to re-write my dissertation, twice. When I applied for jobs as a young assistant professor, I had graduate degrees from Berkeley and Harvard, and so I wasn’t prepared, really, to be rejected thirty eight times. I only have 34 of these letters, because four of the Universities I’d applied to didn’t bother to tell me no until I called to check up on my application. It’s a sad thing when youhave to call to learn you’d been rejected.
Though many students may not know this, professor is an occupation full of rejection. As a professor myself, I did get tenure, but both of my scholarly books were roundly pasted during their early drafts—blind review is wonderful because it’s such a free-for-all. It happened like this: I finished my first draft for my first book, which took most of four years, and then I sent it to New York University Press; the Press took my name off of the manuscript and sent it to four senior professors who were experts in the fields where I was hoping to contribute; and then they 1
got busy. It’s like willingly putting yourself in a dark room where senior professors with big egos, bigger paddles, and night-vision goggles get to whack you at will. I can’t see them, they have no idea who I am, and who knows why they were so mean. All I know is that I got four, five-to-seven page letters, all anonymous; they listed everything I’d done wrong, some in excruciating detail. Truly, I’d never felt such rejection and hurt as when I tried to become a successful professor, thanks to blind review. One comment was so especially cruel that I don’t need the physical letter to remember it: “The author writes reasonably well, but the manuscript should not be published without substantial revisions to chapters 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, and 7.” The draft of my first book only had eight chapters. Ouch.
Often in life, things don’t go the way you’d planned, and sometimes, it’s hardest on the people who typically get what they want, people who aren’t accustomed to failure or rejection. Certainly, I had some academic troubles when I was a younger immigrant and still confused about English, but most of the time, I got good grades, I did well in school, my teachers liked me, and by the time I was in high school, I was maybe a little arrogant. I came to believe that I was “gifted” because I was told I was “gifted”; I expected that others should simply acknowledge this fact. Sometime after that first C-, though,...
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