In sixth grade, even if you had a crush on someone, you would never ask them out. The reasoning was simple: it was embarrassing and high-risk. The potential outcomes weren’t you took no action so you are not dating them, you took action and are now dating them, and you took action and got rejected so you are not dating them, but rather you took no action so you are not dating them, you took action and are now dating them, and you took action and got rejected so you are not dating them and being made fun of by everyone in the grade. You’d exposed your own vulnerability and hadn’t even gotten any benefit out of it. And middle school students were vicious.
Pretty much everyone has passed through this phase of life, which is why I have always found the advice “the worst thing that can happen is they say no, which is the same result as if you never ask” to be bizarre. The worst thing that can happen is much worse than a simple no. Don’t we all know this by now?
And okay, we aren’t eleven years old anymore, so the costs are different. If I were to ask someone out now, maybe it is true that I’m exposing myself to much less risk these days. But there are other circumstances, too, in which the cost of trying for something is much higher than simply hearing a no. If I invest time and energy into a job application, only to not get the job, that is time and energy I could’ve spent elsewhere. Worse, I might get blacklisted from the company (this has happened a few times when I didn’t perform well in a technical interview) and never receive another chance.
I have a guy friend who still doesn’t ask women out, due to fear of being labelled as creepy. For similar reasons (with the bonus fear of getting hate-crimed), I don’t approach women if I’m unsure about their sexual orientation.
And I confess that rejection can bother me: if I ask a question in a group chat and nobody responds, the perceived social rejection feels bad. Once, I spent an entire summer at an internship and didn’t get a return offer, and that rejection hurt because it felt like all the time I had given this company was wasted.
Since this is on the admissions blog and it is December, some of you might be considering a different possibility of rejection. Here is an anecdote from my college-application era, which now feels like half a lifetime ago: when I was applying to schools, there was a school where I withdrew my application before receiving my decision, because I had a feeling I was going to get rejected and I didn’t want to give them the chance to do so. That’s silly hubris, right? It doesn’t matter that much now, because I got into MIT which I would’ve chosen over that school anyway, but still, what was the point of withdrawing?
I know some people have thicker skin than me, but a lot of growing up has been about realizing that I am not other people, I can only ever be myself, and I can’t learn to handle a tendency of mine if I’m trying to deny it even exists.
So I try to be realistic about the costs of rejection. Dismissing my own feelings (“oh, I shouldn’t be scared of feeling disappointed/sad/etc.”) creates an inaccurate portrayal of the risks. Instead, I factor them in, but I also weigh them appropriately. There’s no point in making myself feel bad for no reason, so maybe I won’t ask a question in a class group chat if I can get the information elsewhere, but also, sometimes it’s worth feeling bad for opportunities that are potentially high-reward.
Honestly, I still could be better at dealing with rejection; I don’t apply to jobs unless I’m extremely qualified for them, I get anxious over asking for things I want. But if I ever want to get to anywhere meaningful, I have to confront the risk of rejection.