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Zen and the Art of Embracing Rejection

What's so good about negative feedback?

What's a rejectee to do?

In some professions, such as the publish-or-perish world of academia, rejection is the norm. In my own field of social psychology, researchers carefully craft detailed papers describing their programs of research--several studies over which they may have painstakingly labored for two, three, or four years. Even after the research itself is completed, the scientist may spend months analyzing and reanalyzing his or her data, and then months more writing and rewriting the paper to clearly communicate the profound advances contained therein. Despite all that labor, the top research journals reject fully 9 out of 10 of the papers they receive. The reviews are often bluntly negative, listing flaw after flaw in the logic of the arguments and the validity of the data supporting those arguments, and perhaps observing that the research question itself isn’t all that important after all.

I just returned from a meeting of 4,000 social and personality psychologists from around the world, many of whom are young assistant professors hoping to win tenure, or even younger doctoral students hoping to win a job as an assistant professor, at which time they too can start worrying about whether or not they’ll win tenure. Every one of these people has enormous potential, having already proved their intellectual prowess, conscientiousness, and creativity. The typical person at the conference has an IQ in the top 1 or 2 percent of the human race, as attested by their stellar grades, and impressive scores on the GREs (Graduate Record Examinations, which are a lot like the SATs, but for people who are now completing college and wish to obtain a Ph.D.) Besides evidencing high levels of intelligence, anyone accepted into a Ph.D. program also managed to convince their professors to write letters raving about their ambition, conscientiousness, writing ability, intrinsic interest in psychology, and all-around creative brilliance.

Ironically, being a top-level honors student all their lives has handicapped them. Because their teachers have showered them with glowing feedback, whilst plastering gold stars, smiley faces, and high praise all over their essays and book reports, many of these brilliant young researchers have very little experience handling negative feedback. When they submit their first paper to a scientific journal, though, there is a 90 percent chance that, after waiting for an additional two to four months, they will be the recipient of review letter that begins something like: “I have asked three experts in the field to evaluate your paper, and based on the many problems they point out, I am sorry to inform you that I must decline to publish your paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. After a lifetime of easy "A"s, they have worked harder than they ever worked before, only to receive a Failing Grade! Their reaction is likely to involve some combination of intense shock and psychological pain.

I gave a talk at the opening session of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s meetings, as part of a symposium in which three senior researchers talked on the general topic: “What I Wish I’d Known Then.” The symposium was aimed to help those promising young scholars learn something from us seasoned seniors about how to do well in an academic career. My talk was titled: “The Zen of Embracing Rejection.” I often judge the success of my talks by the number of laughs I hear, and by this criterion, the talk went well. Besides generating a lot of laughter, I believe that the talk also generated a lot of sighs of relief. Why? Because I let them in on a dirty little secret: The most successful people in the field have also seen more than their share of rejection letters. I tried to give these young scientists some advice that I think applies to lots of other endeavors as well–accepting failure with an open mind can often be the shortest path to success.

Many years back, when I was still a young professor, I recall a conversation between two of the most successful people in the field. These were two prominent professors (Charles S. Carver and David Kenny), whose articles had appeared in all the major journals, and gone on to have immense scientific impact (as judged by thousands of citations by other scientific researchers). But rather than basking in their great success, these two super-stars were discussing their strategies for coping with rejection letters. It quickly became clear that both of them had seen many, many rejection letters. This was especially useful for me to hear at the time, because I had just received several rejection letters in a row, and I was beginning to wonder whether I should consider a different career, perhaps returning to New York City to drive a cab, or taking a 9-to-5 job with a more readily achievable job description.

In the ensuing years, I told many of my own graduate students about that conversation, and most of them were amazed to hear that two of the intellectual giants in the field also had to deal with a lot of rejection in their lives. I also tried to encourage the young researchers to embrace negative feedback at several levels. At the local level, it pays to encourage your friends and colleagues to give you absolutely honest critical feedback. Showering you with unconditional positive regard seems like a nice thing to do, but honest feedback is a more precious gift, saving you the agony of completing an imperfect project and getting the honest feedback from the editor in the form of a rejection letter. At the next level up, it pays to keep an open and nondefensive mind when you do get a letter that starts out “I am sorry to inform you…” The nice thing about scientific journals is that they let you see the reviewer’s comments, thereby helping you learn how you could communicate your ideas more effectively, or design a new study that will deal with a problem you hadn’t thought about. Sometimes, negative feedback might even lead you to abandon a nonproductive line of work, and divert your efforts to something else. And at the broadest level, when you are trying to develop a broad and integrative theory, it pays to listen carefully when people do not understand your logic, or are not convinced by your evidence. Evolutionary psychologists have gotten lots of negative reactions, but it has actually strengthened the field, by encouraging researchers to collect more rigorous data, to address the persistent misconceptions, and to re-explain the central ideas in clearer and more convincing ways.

Of course, I myself don’t always take such an even-handed zen perspective. In fact, my own reactions to negative reviews typically follow the stages of grief that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described as characteristic of terminal illness:

Denial: If the first paragraph of the decision-letter contains the word string: “Sorry to inform you,” I sometimes don’t read another word. I take the Scarlett O’Hara route: “I’ll think about it tomorrow."

Anger: When tomorrow comes, I can’t resist the impulse to open Pandora’s box. But despite my self-encouragements to be reasonable and relaxed, I am soon ranting about “idiot reviewers, semi-creationist anti-evolution dunces,” and other unprintable epithets.

Bargaining: When my anger has come down below the wall-punching level, I may next draft a letter that begins: “Dear numbskull editor… I hardly know where to begin counting the ways in which you screwed up in appreciating the brilliance of my work.”

Depression: After tearing up several drafts of my angry letter to the editor, I switch to the morose refrain: “Maybe I don’t belong in this field.” I seriously asked this question after every negative review in my younger years, but even now, after I have published articles in most of the leading journals in my field, I still occasionally ask it, reframed as: “Perhaps it is time I retired.”

Acceptance: Eventually, I get over my self-defeating responses, and say to my research team: “OK, let’s re-read those reviews carefully, and ask ourselves: what’s the next study we need to do to deal with reviewer C’s reservations?”

There are some sub-steps of the acceptance phase, and occasionally it includes the sub-phase where you realize that it’s actually fun to engage in dialectic interchange with other intelligent people.

And the greatest thing is that scientific arguments are not like terminal illnesses. In fact, there’s an additional phase:

Rebirth: When you’re really at your Buddha-like best, you appreciate that scientific progress comes about not when researchers uncritically accept one another’s ideas, but when they challenge one another to take their case one step further, and either produce some more solidly indisputable proof, or to actually change the theory to incorporate aspects of the data we were trying to deny or ignore. By using the negative feedback to improve your approach, you, and your theory, grow stronger.

When I think about it, these same phases apply to more than just scientific research. They apply to lots of other creative endeavors, in the business world, and even in our personal lives. Although it may serve a short-term purpose in emotional coping, there’s no long-term future in denial, ranting anger, or depression when people don’t like your ideas, or even when they don’t like you, or something about you. But there is a future in asking whether there is something in their feedback that you can use either to improve yourself, to improve your message, or to realize that you are seeking the wrong goal, or trying to appeal to the wrong audience, and would be happier if you moved on.

Douglas T. Kenrick is the author of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature. His new book, just released in September 2013, is: The Rational Animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think. Check out this 3 minute video in which he and coauthor Vlad Griskevicius discuss the books 2 main themes.