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Rejection is a little-discussed, common fact of work life. We’re expected to keep quiet, and suck it up. But that isn’t easy.

“Rejection is hard for me, even though I study it,” says Grit author Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. “I’m not the kind of person who’s just like, ‘Oh, I love critical feedback; telling me what I did wrong is like whipped cream.’ It’s really not. It’s like a sour lemon.”

Prof. Duckworth was one of a number of accomplished women Jessica Bacal, director of Reflective and Integrative Practices at Smith College, interviewed to get a handle on rejection.

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“It’s possible, after the initial bad feelings, to separate yourself from a rejection and use your reaction to it as data about your future path,” Ms. Bacal writes in The Rejection that Changed My Life. Rejection is data. It can inform the next steps in your life.

Prof. Duckworth told her: “When I think about grit, it isn’t like being able to blow off a rejection or failure in the moment; it isn’t about not crying. You can cry all you want. The question is, do you get up again?”

You feel like you are the only person who has failed but that’s not true, she adds. Failure happens to everyone. Inevitably, you will feel vulnerable. It’s helpful to share with people you care about and get support from one another.

Television producer Sarah Koenig says self-reflection after a rejection is useful. But self-recrimination is not. She says there’s a balance between figuring out what part you played in the rejection and whether to deal with that, “ugly as it might be,” or instead simply recognize the situation and move on. She adds: “You know what would be bizarre? If you never failed and you never got rejected. And it probably wouldn’t serve you well, either, as a good human being.”

While men face rejection, Ms. Bacal found it intriguing and helpful to focus interviews solely on women, thus pairing “rejection” and “women,” given, as she puts it, that “feminine whispers softness and collaboration.” Joan C. Williams, who has researched gender extensively as founding director at the Center for WorkLife Law, says if a man is rejected and reacts by going back to insist he will not take no as an answer, he will be seen as admirably persistent. But if a woman contests a rejection the feeling will be she is arrogant and can’t get the message. There’s less social room for a woman to fight a rejection. If you do, she suggests trying to raise the level of warmth in your tone and expression, in line with expectations of women.

She also warns that if you feel awful at work and are being constantly rejected, don’t discount the possibility that you are experiencing sexism or racism (if the latter fits), or both. Laura Weidman Powers, CEO of the technology industry diversity organization Code2040, told Ms. Bacal that if things feel off at work and you sense bias is affecting your experience, make sure you plug into communities and opportunities that value you and your worth, even as you may try to change the system.

Rejection can be like a muscle – if you practise it, you will get stronger. Canadian author and illustrator Keri Smith told Ms. Bacal that it’s important to participate in things where your chance of failing is quite high. For her, it was sewing, since when you begin sewing you are guaranteed initially to make clothes that you won’t wear. “But when you push yourself to tolerate failure over and over, you’re not as crushed by it,” she notes.

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Laura Huang, a professor at Harvard Business School, has her students try to get 10 people to say no to them. It not only helps to deal with rejection, sometimes they make seemingly outrageous requests that aren’t rejected. The bitter lemon has become whipped cream.

Quick hits

  • Don’t leave your life to chance, hoping everything will turn out fine. Consultant Steve Keating says it’s vital to write out your goals and invest the time to plan how to turn them into reality: “Without goals and plans you might as well be buying lottery tickets.”
  • Build a ritual related to starting work each day that will help you prevent procrastination. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, notes it should be something fun – even surfing the web or playing video games – that puts you in the mood and routinely prepares you for work.
  • Always let the employer bring up the salary question first in a job interview, advises executive recruiter Gerald Walsh. That’s the protocol, and it can seem rude to violate it.
  • Public speaking isn’t research, so in preparing your presentations don’t get hung up on your research or the art of speaking itself. Presentations coach Gary Genard says you must be audience-centric, focused solely on meeting their needs.
  • Learn an organization’s culture before working with or for it, suggests Michael Preis, author of 101 Things I Learned in Business School.

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