Learning to embrace rejection and to fail even better

On a chilly, sunny morning, I wake up to the doorbell and a beautiful bouquet from the faculty board. There is nothing I love more than unexpected small acts of recognition, and this one puts a smile on my face that I carry with me for the rest of the day. 

Word has arrived that I have received a new research grant. This follows a series of successful grant applications in the past year, self-congratulating social media posts, and team celebrations.

What not many people know is that these successes follow three years of countless rejections of grant applications. In the rejection letters that I inevitably received, I read reviewers commenting on how my proposed study was not important for this country, how my methodology was not methodological enough, and how I was probably not sufficiently networked to carry out the proposed study. 

Some of these comments followed me for months like a personalized thunderhead blocking the sun.

Who in academia isn’t familiar with the type of email telling you that someone regrets informing you about the outcome of your grant application, turning your stomach in knots? Who hasn’t experienced being caught in a toxic feedback loop of reviewers implying that you are lazy, stupid, or just doing bad science? 

Failure in general hurts, but failure in academia arguably hurts even more, because higher education is obsessed with excellence

With a success rate of 10 to 20 percent on most grant applications, I suspect that most academics have had a taste of this. But where are these stories? And, more importantly, where are the bouquets and party invitations to celebrate these rejections?

We tend to share and celebrate happy news and success stories. Think for a moment about your social media feed: academics get grants, others get married, go on vacation to exotic places, graduate from university, get promoted, or finish a marathon. We rarely see news or celebrations over rejections, dropping out of school, not being promoted, failing again and again but still trying. 

Failure in general hurts, but failure in academia arguably hurts even more, because higher education is obsessed with excellence, and academics’ worth is monetized through grant agencies. But to buy into the false assumption that the grant agencies work and academics fail is pointless, and only serves to perpetuate the ‘shame system’ that is all but inherent in academia: you are never good enough. 

Why don’t we recognise and celebrate the part of the process that we can actually control – the effort instead of the outcome? 

Imagine promotion committees recognising grant applications instead of grant outcomes. Imagine research teams celebrating the effort that members put into the development of a rejected grant application instead of creating a culture of isolation and shame over rejections. Think of parties where academics share their failure stories and toast their rejections. Think of students learning that their professors fail, too. 

Wouldn’t such sharing help us grow into more open, empathetic, and resilient academics? Wouldn’t we learn to embrace rejection and to fail even better? 



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