{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

Rejection

The sound of a motorbike echoed through the suburban ghost town.

It was a little after 10am on a weekday in late spring. Already 35 degrees outside. And climbing.

Kids were in school.

Workers were at work.

Those pensioners not camped out in medical waiting rooms had migrated en masse to the air-conditioned climes of the shopping centre food court or local library.

The engine noise drew nearer.

Not the aggressive growl of a dirt bike.

Nor the buttock tenderising roar of a Harley.

This was the low purr of an underpowered road bike. The sort that was issued to the local postman.

A battered old fire engine red motorbike puttered across the driveway.

Maybe it wouldn’t stop today?

No such luck! The bike slowed to a halt at the letterbox.

The postman rummaged in his pannier and retrieved a handful of envelopes. He deposited them in the letterbox slot, displacing the gecko who had long ago taken up residence inside the mailbox.

As the motorbike puttered off down the street, I reluctantly headed out to collect the mail.

Venturing outside felt like walking into a blast furnace.

The blinding glare of harsh sunlight reflecting off the cement.

Morning heat already beginning to melt the asphalt street surface.

My barefoot shuffle across the driveway reminiscent of a gullible tourist attempting the Hawaiian fire-walk.

The disgruntled sun-worshipping lizard glared balefully at me, as I reached past it to collect the mail. As far as death stares went, it needed some work.

Clutching the letters, I hot-footed it back into the house. The temperature indoors was much the same as outside, but at least it was out of the sun.

One by one I went through the motions of opening the letters.

Experience had taught me that a thin standard letter-sized envelope contained a rejection letter. Or a bill.

Urban legend had it that acceptances were delivered in fat A4 sized envelopes. Possibly accompanied by marching bands and ticker-tape parades.

Neither I, nor any of my university friends, knew for certain.

A 35% youth unemployment rate meant I wasn’t the only soon-to-be-graduate to find themselves home on a weekday, experiencing a feeling of impending doom at the postman’s approach.

Sure enough, the post included a rejection letter.

My 73rd.

It had become quite the collection. A veritable “Who’s Who” of the leading commercial enterprises from across the country.

They all followed much the same pattern:

Dear Mr { in·deed·a·bly }

Thank you for your interest in the graduate position. Your application was unsuccessful.

The field for this year’s graduate programme was the largest and most competitive in recent memory. Unfortunately, we are only able to offer positions to a very select few.

I wish you every success in your future endeavours.

Yours sincerely

Director of Human Resources

The ancient art of rejection

I reflected back on the recent graduate programme job interview I had attended with a large multinational accounting firm.

In my head, I had imagined visiting an impressive centrally located tower of glass and steel.

Lots of well-dressed professionals bustling around with purpose. Important people doing important work.

I would be shown into a lavish conference room.

Introduced to an intimidating senior partner. 

Thoroughly probed and vetted to ensure that only the very best, those truly worthy of representing such an august and respected firm, would be allowed to join their corporate family.

After passing the test, the partner would parade me around the firm.

Warmly introduce me to my new colleagues, who were uniformly welcoming and looking forward to working with me.   

Give me a tour of the private office that would soon be mine.

Thinking back on that now, I can only laugh at how clueless the younger me had been! My perception of office life had come entirely from Hollywood movies like The Firm and The Secret of My Success.

In reality, the interview had been held on-campus at my university.

In the gymnasium.

A circle of desks lined the walls, separated by freestanding partitions to provide the illusion of privacy.

The partitions turned out to be notice boards that had been liberated from around the campus, still covered with flyers:

  • Arthouse film screening times.
  • Ghostwriters: Party hard while we improve your grades and write your thesis.
  • Join the protest against the screening of the arthouse movie.
  • For a good time phone Romy. All kinks catered for.
  • Join the protest against the censorship of the arthouse movie.
  • Thinking of dropping out? Our removals services can help.

It wasn’t just my graduate interview that was being conducted. It was all the graduate interviews.

The gym reeked of stale sweat, nerves, and desperation. The background noise level rivalled the concourse of a busy train station at peak hour.

I had arrived a few minutes before the appointed time, so I slowly walked a lap of the vast hall.

Gauging the mood. Learning the process. Watching the people.

What I witnessed was a dance of sorts.

Nervous and desperate students, mostly wearing cheap ill-fitting business clothes they had either borrowed or purchased from charity shops for the occasion.

Many clutched portfolios of achievements, certificates, recommendation letters and references. Display books that career advisors and teachers endlessly encourage students to curate throughout their school years.

Those same portfolios that no prospective employer ever showed even the slightest inclination in viewing. Their interests lie not in past glories, but rather with what you can do for them today.

On the other side of the table sat the interviewers.

Not the intimidating accomplished senior partner from my imagination, dressed in a power suit.

No, for the most part, the interviewers were barely two years older than the applicants.

Dressed nearly as badly.

Wearing the anxious yet resigned expression of someone who has important deadlines to meet back at the office, and would rather be anywhere but here.

They had drawn the short straw.

Been volunteered to fly the firm’s flag.

Be seen to recruit from these hallowed halls of education.

Persisting the meritocracy myth that entry is available to all who are good enough.

To ensure the continued supply of faceless graduate cogs into the vast corporate machine.

Eventually, I found the makeshift booth sporting the distinctive logo. The sign had been printed out on a colour printer that appeared to have been running out of red ink. Then crookedly attached to the desk with what appeared to be chewing gum.

Interview of the damned

I politely stood a couple of steps behind the interviewee chair, currently occupied by the dux of our year.

She possessed a fearsome intellect. Single-minded determination. A take-no-prisoners approach that had intimidated the hell out of more than a few seasoned lecturers.

She was crying.

Sobbing actually.

I was stunned. I had witnessed her inflict total mental destruction on tutors and group project team members. It had never occurred to me that she was anything other than an unstoppable force of nature.

The interviewer glanced at me over her shoulder and offered a helpless “what can I do?” shrug.

I’m afraid our time is up. Thank you for your interest in the graduate position.  I wish you every success in your future endeavours.

She rose, gave the interviewer’s hand a perfunctory shake, then fled from the gymnasium.

The interviewer beckoned me forward.

He proffered the same hand to me, then thought better of it, and instead reluctantly wiped the tears and snot on his trouser leg.

I sat in the recently vacated seat and fired off a “what did you do?” glare at the interviewer.

The previous interviewee may have been a fearsome bully, but she was our fearsome bully.

He sat.

Let out a huge sigh.

Looked to the ceiling as if searching for strength. Or inspiration.

Prominently displayed on the partition over his shoulder was a large public health advisory poster advising people to “dam a ‘dom” and reduce the risk of sexually transmitted diseases when rimming.

I had no idea what rimming was.

The interviewer leaned forward. Fixed his eyes on me. Was about to launch into the canned speech that he had probably delivered dozens of times already that day.

As he did so, the rest of the poster became visible.

It displayed an illustrative cartoon that both educated and perplexed me. I now understood what rimming was.

The image was so jarringly incongruous with the interview setting, yet so symbolic of the interview ritual itself, that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

The interviewer gold fished.

Paused.

Looked puzzled.

Then glanced over his shoulder in the direction of my gaze. He too burst out laughing.

When he turned back to me his expression had changed.

Gone was the pained expression of a long-suffering man going through the motions. In its place was the relieved face of a man who’s ordeal is finally over.

I’ll be straight with you. There is no graduate programme job up for grabs today.

There never was.

All eight slots were filled by the nieces and godsons of the senior partners before the first application was received.

The right schools. The right connections. You know how that game goes.

I raised an eyebrow and waited. Most people have trouble with uncomfortable silences. He proved no different.

I’ve been sent here to fly the flag for the firm.

To show that we do consider applicants from all schools and all parts of the country.

Sometimes it may even be true. But not this year.

I stared at him. Waited some more.

He squirmed, but didn’t know what else to say.

Why me?” I finally asked.

I shortlisted three people to interview today, based on how interesting their student jobs sounded. If I was going to waste a day stringing people along, at least I get to hear some entertaining stories while they gained some interview practice.

I shook my head. Stood. Walked away.

Rejected.

Venturing off script

After that, I abandoned my search for a graduate accountant role. Why limit myself with the “graduate” qualifier?

No more completing application forms from the back of glossy graduate recruitment brochures, obtained from the university careers office.

Instead, I started applying directly for accounting roles advertised in the newspaper.

The final letter in the collection delivered by the postman that morning wasn’t a 74th rejection.

It was an acceptance letter!

The urban legend was wrong. No heavy A4 sized envelope. No cheerleaders. No fireworks.

Instead, it was a single sheet of paper offering permanent employment as a fully fledged accountant (no qualifier) paying an annual salary of $28,000 plus benefits.

I grinned.

Did the victory dance.

Accepted a position that would see me starting a couple of rungs higher up the career ladder than any of the graduate accounting positions I had been rejected from.

For the next 20 years I successfully landed every job I applied for. Every client I pitched.

The moment I was offered an interview then the gig was as good as mine.

Until one day, it wasn’t.

That last rejection stung more than all 73 of my graduate programme rejections combined.

Humbling. Letting some air out of my tyres. Resulting in some searching questions being asked.

It had been a remarkable run, that was bound to come to an end at some point.

That rejection forced me to consider just how much luck had played a part in my career.

Being in the right place at the right time.

Having the option to grab hold of opportunities resembling rockets. Occupying the fortunate position to say no to those more reminiscent of anchors.

Learning to live with disappointment

This week I was reminded of how it feels to be rejected, and the opportunities provided by pursuing a different path.

I’ve been interviewing candidates for a new role at the client site. Their calibre and pedigree have generally been impressive.

For the most part, they were high flyers caught without a seat when the music stopped.

Their current employers using the top cover of Brexit to relocate jobs away from London. Occasionally to lower-cost locales in regional England. More often abroad.

The business suits were better cut, and the nerves better masked, than the graduates in that gymnasium all those years ago.

The desperation, fear, and a sense of urgency still smell the same.

The standout candidate was not the old man in the grey suit, who had been playing the game for decades.

Nor was it the Big 4 consultancy partner. Jumping before he was pushed, in the face of an empty forward work pipeline and an uncertain future.

It wasn’t the former CTO who had been forced to beat a strategic retreat a couple of rungs down the career ladder in order to try and secure gainful employment.

No, all those candidates faced the uncomfortable and unfamiliar feeling of rejection.

The pick of the candidates turned out to be a woman in her early forties, with dark skin and an exotic name. Returning to the workforce after stepping off the fast track to have a couple of kids.

An initially unpopular choice with the client, but I argued her case. Exceptional candidates are worth fighting for.

Her depth of knowledge, problem-solving approach, and grounded common sense approach greatly impressed all who had interviewed her. The client relented, deciding that hiring the best person for this key role was the right outcome.

When we called to offer her the position, she turned it down in favour of a better offer elsewhere.

Rejected again.


References


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8 Comments

  1. Mr. RIP 29 September 2019

    I’m here to fly the flag for my blog.
    To show that we consider posts from all the blogs
    Sometimes it may even be true… Well, this time it is!

    Amazing post!

    Luckily I don’t have your massive experience with rejections.
    Now that I thin about it, maybe it would have helped valorize the job I actually got hired for.
    Having had all too easy probably contributed in my bad attitude of taking things for granted.

    Thanks for the post 🙂

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 29 September 2019

      Thanks for your kind words Mr RIP.

      My father would have described the experience as “character building“. Still, it worked out in the end. In a way all that rejection prepared me for some of the challenges associated with migrating to a new place, building a new life, changing professions, and so on.

  2. Hustle Escape 29 September 2019

    Beautifully written, as usual.

    For me, the rejections that followed university were a much-needed reality check. I’d even go as far to say that they better prepared me for work life than university itself. You can’t replicate that stark learning experience in a classroom.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 29 September 2019

      Thanks Hustle Escape.

      Agreed. Often the best way to learn is by doing, and a brutal failure can teach us far more than a steady stream of success.

      The humbling thing about graduating is the dawning realisation that despite our investing of years and vast sums in tuition fees, we actually possess few marketable skills and zero practical experience that could be tangibly used straight away by employers.

      Hiring a graduate is an investment, that takes quite a while to pay any dividends.

  3. weenie 29 September 2019

    This great post brought back so many memories! I too had a stack of rejection letters for graduate positions – I can’t recall how many I had but I had enough that I was contemplating using them to ‘wallpaper’ one of the walls of my bedroom!

    I’m glad that I never attended the kind of graduate programme interview you mention – I’m not the weepy kind, so wouldn’t have been like that poor girl but I would have been really angry.

    When I was made redundant a few years back, I hadn’t been for an external interview for over 20 years so was scared that I’d be rejected, considered too old, too institutionalised. Fortunately, I only received two rejections (which I thought I handled quite well bcause I wasn’t ‘desperate’ for the jobs) before landing my current job. When I asked what got me the role, my boss said that it was my experience and that they thought I would cope with being dropped in at the deep end!

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 30 September 2019

      Thanks weenie.

      Well done on securing your next job so quickly. You certainly landed on your feet!

      You’ve astutely highlighted one of the most important aspects of Financial Independence, the absence of desperation from decision making. For you those two rejections were likely inconvenient and unfortunate, but mere bumps in the road. For many they probably would have represented a catastrophe, perhaps the difference between meeting a mortgage or credit card payment and defaulting.

    • Jonathan 5 October 2019

      Longer paragraphs.

      Please.

      Otherwise hard to enjoy to your interesting prose.

      • {in·deed·a·bly} 5 October 2019

        Thank you Jonathan, for investing some of your scarce precious time to read my story and leave such thoughtful constructive feedback and generous praise of my writing. I wish I had the words to express just how much it means to me, but the value of your contribution is truly beyond measure.

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