Reframing rejection

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One of my coffee-stained notebooks from my last staff job. Laid off, not fun!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Rejection to a writer is like blood to a surgeon — a messy and necessary part of every working day.

— Anonymous

 

Does anyone anywhere relish rejection? Not really.

I recently interviewed for a dream job — didn’t get it. I applied for a very well paid corporate job and was interviewed, didn’t get it. Jose and I both applied for very good journalism jobs at major outlets in D.C.

Not even an interview.

So, yeah, we’re quite familiar with the concept!

My first two books were each rejected by 25 publishers before a major NYC house took each one on. So, even after a lot of rejection, you can achieve a goal.

If you don’t give up.

 

 

BLOWN AWAY COVER
My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

 

 

An interesting piece by Adam Grant  on this topic in The New York Times:

A good starting point is to remove, “It’s not you, it’s me” from your vocabulary. Sometimes it really is them! But the real reason to ban that phrase is because most of the time when we get rejected, it’s not you. It’s not me either. It’s us.

Rejection often happens because of a lack of fit in the relationship: Your values were a mismatch for that interviewer, your skills didn’t quite suit that job, your ratty conference T-shirts failed to overlap with the taste of your decreasingly significant other. New research reveals that when people are in the habit of blaming setbacks on relationships instead of only on the individuals involved, they’re less likely to give up — and more motivated to get better.

It also helps to recognize that our lives are composed of many selves…When one of your identities is rejected, resilience comes from turning to another identity that matters to you.

This is the only way I’ve really stayed sane through so many rejections.

While American life is determined to reduce us all to more productive automatons, who feel guilty if we do anything that’s not income producing, we are all so much more than that!

When my ideas are rejected — as they are all the time,  by which I mean every week, sometimes every day! —

 

I’m still:

 

— a much beloved wife

— a welcomed neighbor

— a valued friend

— a member of my spin class

— a member of my church

— a wise contributor to many on-line writing groups where others seek advice

— athletic and flexible and strong

— multi-lingual

— a traveler

— a very good cook and hostess

It looks as though my latest book proposal will get looked at by an editor. I should be more excited, but until it sells, if it does, I’m holding my fire.

It was roundly rejected last year by multiple agents, which — I admit — left me really frustrated and dejected.

 

How well do you handle rejection?

Coping with fragility

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

What a concept.

I’ve spent most of my life — basically until 2018 — behaving in ways that start with the letter B: bold, brazen, brash, ballsy, bumptious.

I was, or looked, fearless. At 25, I jumped into a truck in Perpignan with a French driver 10 years my senior and spent eight (amazing!) days crossing southern Europe to Istanbul with him, for a story. I’ve interviewed people across the U.S. who own a lot of guns. Have traveled alone in some funky places.

Today?

Not so much.

My health, as far as we know, is fine — after completing 20 days’ radiation treatment November 15, 2018 for very early stage breast cancer, no chemo — I’m now taking medication for five years.

But I feel so much more fragile.

Like, oh yeah, I can be broken and weak, My body can/did surprise me and not in a good way.

It’s a challenge to manage fragility — as anyone (not me) who has had and cared for very small children or very old/ill people or animals.

We live in a culture of haste and acquisition and competition and relentless shows of strength and prowess. There’s little useful discussion of how to be slow and gentle and take very good care of ourselves and others. The lack of compassionate American public policy makes brutally clear that being ill and “unproductive” are taboo.

So we don’t talk much publicly about what it’s like to be fragile and to navigate life and work and friendship and family when we feel like wet bits of paper instead of big strong ferocious creatures.

I don’t like feeling vulnerable. I suspect others don’t like that feeling too much at all.

But my new MO is to tell people —- hey, I just can’t do X right now. I don’t explain. I just withdraw from demands, social and professional, even for a few hours or days until I can bring my A game and respond fully.

I grew up in a family that had little interest in my times of need and weakness and fragility — so I learned to suppress and ignore and deny those feelings.

But those needs were always there and are now, Jaws-like, re-surfacing with some serious insistence.

Therapy helps.

Telling good friends helps.

But it’s a process.

 

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It’s called growing up

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Been standing on my own two feet for a long, long time

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I read this story and wanted to weep….at how crazy this is:

Bribing SAT proctors. Fabricating students’ athletic credentials. Paying off college officials. The actions that some wealthy [American] parents were charged with Tuesday — to secure their children a spot at elite colleges — are illegal and scandalous. But they’re part of a broader pattern, albeit on the extreme end of the continuum: parents’ willingness to do anything it takes to help their grown children succeed.

As college has become more competitive and young adults’ economic prospects less assured, parents have begun spending much more time and money on their children — including well after they turn 18. Modern parenting typically remains hands-on, and gets more expensive, when children become young adults, according to a new survey by Morning Consult for The New York Times.

A significant share of parents, across income levels, say they’re involved in their adult children’s daily lives. That includes making doctor’s appointments, reminding them of school and other deadlines, and offering advice on romantic life, found the survey, which was of a nationally representative sample of 1,508 people ages 18 to 28 and 1,136 parents of people that age. More than half of parents give their adult children some form of monthly financial assistance.

 

I often wonder how I might have turned out if this sort of behavior was normal in my life.

Here’s my college experience:

— Lived at home in Toronto with father and his girlfriend, 13 years my senior, for my freshman year. No additional responsibilities, got terrific grades.

— In November of sophomore year, father announces I need to move out and find a place to live as they are selling the house to live on a boat in the Mediterranean. This is many decades before email or cellphones.

— I get $350 a month from my grandmother to live on. This pays my rent on a studio apartment ($160/month, terrible neighborhood), tuition ($660/year), food, phone and answering service, books. Everything, basically. The monthly income from my maternal grandmother wasn’t enough so I started freelancing at the age of 19 to supplement it.

— My mother was traveling the world alone for years, also far far away. I saw her maybe once a year when she flew me to wherever she was. Sort of fun, mostly weird.

— During my university years, I lived alone, was attacked in my apartment while taking a bath, moved, moved again, suffered some health issues, started writing for national magazines. And attended and graduated from the most demanding  and least nurturing (53,000 students) school in Canada.

— In those three years, I had no relatives to check in on me. Just friends. That established a lifelong pattern for me; friends as family.

 

So, you know, this kind of intense parenting strikes me as completely nuts.

 

The only reason I was able to get people twice my age to give me ongoing well-paid assignments was being responsible, meeting deadlines, delivering excellence. Was I mature enough to handle all this alone? Well, I had to be. I had no choice.

The New York Times quotes a survey finding that 74 percent of American parents are making medical appointments for their college-age children, the same percentage reminding them not to miss deadlines for tests and classwork.

I mostly loved my independence in those years. I dated all the wrong boys, made some great friendships, wrote a lot for our weekly student newspaper, led a student exchange with UNC-Chapel Hill that was life-changingly great. Jump-started my career.

Neither parent attended my graduation.

 

What do you think of this relentless parenting?

 

Do you do it?

 

Have you experienced it?

Kintsugi life

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. — Wikipedia

 

The term is most often used to describe a specific way to repair broken pottery, often Japanese. I think it fits life as well.

By a certain point — for some, their teens, others their 50s or 70s — you’ve quite likely been dropped hard a few times against something unyielding. By this, I mean metaphorically and (I hope!) not the result of assault or physical abuse.

We’re not delicate porcelain or exquisite Ming pottery, but we are all fragile and all end up, inevitably, crazed; a word with two definitions, the second meaning spider-webby fine cracks.

 

In a culture increasingly devoted — paradoxically — to the rustic, artisanal and authentic and the social media offerings of glossy perfection, the notion of being broken and repaired, let alone stronger, more beautiful and more valuable for having been broken, perhaps repeatedly, seems radical and bizarre.

 

I’m into it.

Volumes have been written of late praising grit and resilience, as if — at the end of months or years or decades of being gritty and resilient — we aren’t exhausted and scarred. Maybe wiser. Maybe sadder.

I love early porcelain and china, and use several 18th. century pieces as butter dishes…stupidly undervalued. I want to enjoy them while I can. Unlike Japanese work, with its elegant crack-filling lines of gold, they’re stapled together (!), like recent brain surgery patients.

I don’t love these objects any the less for their war wounds, but am so grateful these little emissaries from the past are still with us….that having graced someone’s table in 1789 or 1832, they’re still here for us to use and share.

I feel this way about people.

The ones I most admire aren’t the shiny folk, all smooth and slippery, glittery, preening  and unscathed, but the ragged and weary survivors of physical, mental, professional, emotional and financial struggle — depending on their age and background, possibly all of these — who somehow remain graceful and fun, able to laugh and savor what’s left of their lives.

 

“You’re normal”

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Fragility is humbling and frightening

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been a rough week, slowly recovering from my last radiation treatment — October 15 — and still fighting its cumulative fatigue and insane itchiness on my left breast. I was at my wits’ end, crying in public, (I almost never cry anywhere), just done.

I had a follow-up meeting with the radiation doctor, to be told I’d gained (!?) 10 pounds in six weeks and now needed blood tests to see why. This despite seeing my clothes fit more loosely and gaining compliments on my apparent weight loss.

Our GP, thankfully, saw us an hour later and did the tests; (I’m fine.)

But I started crying in his office, weary of all of it.

I apologized for being a big blubbering baby, ashamed and embarrassed by my inability to control my emotions.

“You’re normal,” he said, calmly and compassionately.

Jose, my husband, sat in the room with us, listening as I absorbed this pretty basic fact.

What, I’m not made of steel?

I’m…vulnerable?

Human?!

Kelly’s tend to be (cough) ambitious and driven; three of us won major national awards in the same month, when I was 41, my younger half-brothers then 31 and 18; I for my writing, they for business skills and for a key scientific discovery, (yes, the youngest!)

We tend to aim high, compete ferociously for as long as it takes, (each of my books, later published by major NYC houses, were rejected 25 times), and usually win, dammit!

We keep our emotions very close to the vest and keep small, tight circles of intimates. I don’t really do acquaintance.

 

Being weak, scared, in pain, exhausted and, even worse, letting others see us in this condition?

 

Terrifying.

I’m slowly getting used to it.

Compassion for my fragility is my new oxygen, as much for myself as the gratitude I feel for that shown to me.

 

 

A summer of reckoning

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

I’m so ready for this summer to end!

 

Not being a beach person, I don’t spend the year eagerly awaiting summer, as many of our friends do.

And this summer has felt like a series of waves smashing us both in the face:

— Husband now using insulin and adjusting to all that it entails

— My breast cancer diagnosis right around my June 6 birthday

— The ensuing tests, procedures and appointments that have consumed precious days of lost work/income since my husband and I are both wholly freelance, with no paid time off that we don’t fund ourselves. (Thank God for savings.)

— Multiple $100 co-pays to have some of these tests and procedures.

— An infection in my breast, six weeks post-op. Extremely painful, but resolved. Breasts are such sensitive things!

— Two friends widowed the same week, a friend’s young adult daughter dying and the sudden and shocking death of a former colleague and friend.

— Far too many days shuttered indoors with AC blasting, curtains drawn, escaping 90+ degree heat

— Far too many days with torrential rain

OK, what’s been good?!

 

— Meeting a new Canadian-in-the-States friend, a fellow writer living in Oakland, CA and his husband who came to NYC and joined us for dinner.

— The thoughtful gift of a classic Hermes silk scarf from a friend; it belonged to her mother, who died last year and was a dear friend of ours.

— So many loving cards, emails, flowers and phone calls from friends worldwide as I adjust to a new reality.

— Blowing insane money on a designer handbag, (on sale, dammit!) after my diagnosis

 

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— Jose made us gorgeous new wooden planters and the brilliant orange marigolds and fragrant lavender have been amazing. I love watching bees dive into the salvia each morning.

— Discovering how multi-talented my friends are, both journalists like me, one of whom made us home-made soap, the other really delicious home-made bread. I love all things artisanal and am in awe of such colonial skill.

— Snagging a potentially very good new freelance opportunity after seeing an editor participating in a Twitter chat. We met in NYC for lemonade and hit it off.

 

How’s your summer been?

Highs?

Lows?

Failure? Let’s discuss

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By Caitlin Kelly

In the shiny, buffed world of social media, how often do you see someone — or do it yourself — admitting to failure?

It’s a parade of perfection, and one that can make any of us feel like a total loser for not being as thin/pretty/well-dressed/groomed/wealthy/well-employed/living on a Greek island…

Loved this New York Times piece about why we need to talk more openly about it:

In a new working paper, co-author Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, found that discussing failures can help to humanize the sharer by making them seem more approachable and relatable in the workplace. It also generally increased levels of so-called “benign envy,” which can motivate and drive employees to perform better.

However, the enemy of benign envy, according to the paper, is “malicious envy”: The type of envy others feel when we talk about our achievements much more often than our struggles. Projecting that image of perfection can be especially harmful for those in leadership positions who risk coming across as disingenuous, Ms. Brooks and her colleagues found.

A simple way to understand this is to look at the polished-though-unrealistic lives many of us present on social media.

 

 

One of the most powerful lessons I learned last year — despite their towering reputations lasting centuries — is that Japanese print-making legend Hokusai, Michelangelo and even Leonardo da Vinci all suffered setbacks and penury and failure.

It happens!

I’ve spoken here a few times about the many failures I’ve experienced in my life and career, but let’s review a few.

The only true value of failure is learning something useful.

 

— Moved to Montreal age 30 for a staff newspaper job I had doubts about (not a very good paper.) Was gone within 18 months after some unpleasant interactions with my boss and a union that shrugged and wouldn’t help.

Lesson: trust your gut.

— Moved to a small town in New Hampshire, pre-Internet. Despite efforts, made no friends and, again, left within 18 months to move to New York, just in time for a recession.

Lesson: I’m not a rural girl!

— Took six months, crying every day, to get a magazine editing job after cold-calling hundreds of strangers.

Lesson: Re-starting your career in a highly-competitive industry in a highly-competitive city with zero social connections is really hard.

— Married in 1992, husband walked out 1994. 

Lesson: Don’t marry someone who won’t do the work to go the distance.

— Have applied many times for competitive fellowships like the Knight-Bagehot (to study business at Columbia), the Alicia Patterson (tried three times), a Canada Council grant (worth $20,000 Canadian) multiple times.

Lesson: Thousands of competitors want the same bag of goodies. You can keep trying, even if you feel pissed off and humiliated.

— Spent many hours in 2018 producing two full book proposals, both of which were rejected by five agents. Fun!

Lesson: Intellectual growth — creative growth of any kind — is almost always going to be unpaid, speculative and suck time away from paid work. How much do you want it?

 

I admit, though — I’m much less amused by failure at this point in my life.

I want to stop working within five years, ideally sooner, which places a lot of pressure on me to to do good work and well-paid work and work that I really care about and am proud to have produced.

All of which now run directly counter to current industry trends in journalism.

I’m not someone who spends her days consumed by envy when I see social media brag-fests. Sure, it hurts to see people winning, especially if you feel like you’re losing. But it doesn’t accomplish anything to focus on their success and your (relative) failure.

No one succeeds alone, so I’m also attentive to people’s headwinds and tailwinds — the many invisible forces beyond talent, skill and experience — that can propel some people to massive/quick success while the rest of us struggle.

That might be family money, social capital, alumni connections, anything that offers a leg up.

Some of my younger friends, in their 20s and 30s, end up consumed with envy at their peers’ glittering achievements, which is a terrible distraction. I do think, once you’re past 40 or 50, life should — ideally! — have brought you some of the rewards you once coveted.

A feeling of success, despite the inevitable setbacks and failures we all experience.

I’ve also found that some things we’re completely obsessed with at 25 or 35 or 45 can shift so that not getting it — i.e. what we once would have deemed a failure — is no longer a goal we even want.

It’s too easy to focus solely on one area of accomplishment — work — rather than being proud that you’ve been a great friend or spouse, have managed to regain and maintain good health, have planted a thriving garden.

We’re all diamonds, multi-faceted, and several sides will always catch the light.

We also all have many successes, if we take time to notice and celebrate them.

 

How do you handle failure?

Do you obsess and freak out or just move ahead?

 

Feelings?!

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Do you start most sentences with “I think” or “I feel”?

Having, managing, expressing (or suppressing) feelings is a big deal in my life.

As someone who faced and had to cope alone with mental illness and alcoholism in one parent and frequent work-related absence in another, I learned early that no one had much interest in hearing how I felt about all of this.

So I learned to bottle it up, or to share only with close friends.

Living in boarding school and summer camp ages eight to 13 (school) and eight to 16 (camp) also meant being surrounded by strangers, some of whom became close friends — but some of whom were bullies.

You learned to keep your counsel.

So a recent workshop at a writers’ conference — where the audience was urged to write “I remember” and dredge up some memories — proved both painful and illuminating for me.

Some of us then read our initial sentences to the room, maybe 150 other professional writers; I did, as well.

I was amazed and moved by what I heard.

It made me much more aware of how limited my ability to express some feelings still is — even later in life.

I’m reluctant to show vulnerability.

I very rarely say “I love you” to someone, even when I feel it.

I’m much more comfortable (which tends to unnerve others) expressing dismay, outrage or frustration — less tender and delicate emotions.

Except — thanks to a diagnosis I received since writing this post (tiny/early/contained breast cancer) — my view has shifted radically and I’ve told a number of friends, neighbors and even professional colleagues.

This is not something to face alone.

It’s also exhausting keeping up a brave face when I don’t feel at all brave or badass but feel worried and tired dealing with six (!) doctors, even if all of them are people I like.

The greatest challenge so far has been managing my anxiety, a battle in itself, while absorbing and making lucid decisions about treatment. It’s a lot to manage.

 

Are you at ease having and expressing your feelings?

 

Coping with rejection

By Caitlin Kelly

Georgetown
What will you do if that door stays closed?

 

It happens.

It stinks.

It hurts.

 

You want(ed): a job, a friendship, a sweetie, a fellowship, a grant, a book or film or music deal.

When you or your idea face (repeated) rejection, it can feel annihilating.

It shouldn’t.

I grew up in a family of freelance creatives, who wrote television shows and directed films and series and wrote and shot magazine articles. I saw, firsthand, what it’s like — emotionally, intellectually and financially — to put in a lot of hard work and hope only to discover that your ideas won’t receive funding.

Rejection is a powerful sorting process, quickly winnowing out those who really want it — and may still not get it! — from those who don’t. Maybe they’re ambivalent or don’t work hard or missed the deadline, again.

When you “fail”, (which to me is only temporary; if chronic, that’s not good), what’s your back-up plan?

Aircraft manufacturers plan for failure, creating planes that can still fly and land safely if an engine malfunctions.

Football coaches have a playbook, and everyone, everyone, needs a Plan B, C and D.

You?

If we’re not thinking ahead to the next step, and the one after that, defeat can feel permanent.

 

How badly do you want it?

 

Here’s a wise blog post on what to do next…

 

I spent the past six weeks working on a book proposal.

Thanks to referrals from generous colleagues, I found top New York agents who replied to my email within hours. I worked with one for several weeks, but we quickly saw — to our mutual regret — this wasn’t a project he felt invested in, and I did. With the best humor and grace we could each muster, we parted ways.

The next agent replied to my email within half an hour — with tart, tough analysis of my idea’s weaknesses (yes, plural) and the intense competition it would face.

To say that — in British terms — these two men were  chalk and cheese, is an understatement. Whew. One was lovely, kind and gentle and encouraging, even if I could tell this wasn’t probably going to work out.

The second was brash, abrasive and cutting.

But neither was a fit.

So, for now, I’m putting that goal on hold; both taught me about the current marketplace (useful) and, essentially, reminded me of the kind of person I want to do business with.

 

None of this, sorry to say, is unusual within the cruelly competitive world of journalism and publishing.

Pretty much every creative field I know — art, music, dance, design, film, theater — is equally filled with smart, talented, well-trained, determined thousands who want the same things we do: money, attention, a job, a gig, a contract.

Recognition!

In my decades in this business, I’ve been rejected so much it just feels normal — I tried for eight years before I was hired as a reporter at the Globe & Mail, Canada’s best newspaper.

I tried multiple times, never successfully, for the Alicia Patterson fellowship, (one of 14 finalists among 387 applicants that year.) The latest winners of the McGraw Prize, awarded to seasoned business writers  — all three of them — beat out the 77 others who sent in their ideas.

Both of my previous books were rejected 25 times before finding a major publisher.

 

BLOWN AWAY COVER
My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsessions

 

 

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My second book, published in 2011

 

 

Whether we welcome it or not, rejection offers us information we have to process.

Simply stamping your foot, shouting”It’s not fair!” or pouting in a corner won’t get it done:

What did you fail to include?

What skills do you need to strengthen?

Could you have prepared more thoroughly?

Would additional training or education help you succeed?

Is your network powerful enough to guide, mentor and promote you?

 

I would never dissuade anyone from following their dreams.

 

I would strongly suggest having a thick, strong coat of armor — for your bank balance and ego — if you do.

How resilient are you?

By Caitlin Kelly

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I found this recent New York Times story interesting, which offers several specific tips on how to build your resilience:

Much of the scientific research on resilience — our ability to bounce back from adversity — has focused on how to build resilience in children. But what about the grown-ups?

While resilience is an essential skill for healthy childhood development, science shows that adults also can take steps to boost resilience in middle age, which is often the time we need it most. Midlife can bring all kinds of stressors, including divorce, the death of a parent, career setbacks and retirement worries, yet many of us don’t build the coping skills we need to meet these challenges.

I’ve long been interested in, and I most admire, people who are resilient — partly because if you’re not, life can end up morass of poor-me-why-me? misery.

Having said that, if you’re struggling with chronic illness and/or persistent poverty, let alone both, it’s damn hard to get out of bed in the morning with optimism.

I found this more recent NYT op-ed more interesting:

 

But a strong filter also creates real problems, because it effectively lies about reality to both the healthy and the sick. It lies to the healthy about the likelihood that they will one day suffer, hiding the fact that even in modernity the Book of Ecclesiastes still applies. It lies to the sick about how alone they really are, because when they were healthy that seemed like perfect normalcy, so they must now be outliers, failures, freaks.

And this deception is amplified now that so much social interaction takes place between disembodied avatars and curated selves, in a realm of Instagrammed hyper-positivity that makes suffering even more isolating than it is in the real world.

And here’s a new, great list of helpful tips on how to build resilience from my friend and colleague Gwen Moran, writing in Fast Company magazine.

I have friends and family who’ve survived sexual abuse and assault, negligence, brutal and costly divorces, serious illnesses…It’s not just a matter of surviving, (which can be difficult and isolating enough!) but coming out the other side with some hope or optimism intact.

You have to somehow believe it’s going to get better, even with much current evidence to the contrary.

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I’ve written here a few times about some of the challenges I’ve faced, even as a relatively privileged white woman: mental illness and alcoholism in my family of origin, multiple family estrangements, job losses and protracted job searches, three recessions, multiple surgeries, divorce, criminal victimization.

But…it could always be worse.

I was struck, limping for a month through multiple European cities wearing a large and very visible brace on my right leg after re-injuring it on a bike ride in Berlin, how many people sympathized: “Oh, poor you!” or “You’re so brave!”

My choices? Stay and continue on, and limp, or leave in the middle of a cherished and otherwise wonderful vacation; popping painkillers and wearing my brace were not a big deal, and probably looked worse to others than it felt to me.

But bravery to me is a much deeper, and stronger quality.

 

You can only know really know how much you can handle once it’s thrown into your lap  — often without warning.

 

If you have health, friends and some savings, tough times are more bearable than if you’re ill, broke and lonely, when it can feel like the whole world is aligned against you.

I decided to marry my husband after he responded with grace, speed, decisiveness and generosity to a crisis within my family. His resilient and optimistic character revealed itself in ways that no movie date or romantic holiday could ever have shown me.

His resilience was one of — and still is — his most attractive qualities.

I value resilience highly, wary of people who spend their lives throwing pity parties, especially the otherwise privileged who are shocked! when difficulty strikes.

We have an example of resilience in our home, a weary little geranium plant who I’m always sure is about to kick the bucket at any minute. Instead it keeps on blossoming and blooming, even on its two scrawny stems.

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Do you value resilience in yourself and others?

 

How did you develop it?