In a presentation to a group of executive job seekers in transition, a recruiter made the point that after years of reviewing C-level résumés, she had noticed a commonality: None of these top professionals had escaped having some setbacks, rejections, or missed opportunities. This information surprised the audience of recent layoff victims, who realized that they were in good company when it came to career misfortune. The recruiter was right: Failures and regrets need not derail your career, and, in fact, can propel it forward if handled wisely.
To find out how successful people dealt with situations when they didn’t get what they wanted, I interviewed a range of accomplished consultants, coaches, and other business professionals, asking them: “What rejection did you experience that turned out for the best?”
When thinking back on jobs they weren’t offered or turned down, graduate schools that didn’t admit them, or promotions that went to someone else, all respondents agreed that they were better off in the long run. Although most were initially disappointed, gaining perspective over time helped them realize that those early frustrations afforded them the chance to try something different and to gain valuable insights.
One of my interviewees, self-reinvention thought leader Dorie Clark, explained that she was turned down by every doctoral program that she applied to. “I ultimately discovered that the minutiae of what a dissertation demands would have killed me,” Clark said.
Gina Warner, CEO of the National AfterSchool Association, told me: “I didn’t pass my bar exam the first time, which meant I couldn’t accept the position I’d been offered at the district attorney’s office. But it did mean I could volunteer on a U.S. Senate campaign, and when that candidate won I got hired to work for her, a much better opportunity for me.”
Executive coach Nihar Chhaya was rejected by all of the top consulting firms he interviewed with when he was an MBA student at Wharton. “I took it pretty hard,” he admitted. “When you’re in the most competitive school, where everyone is asking who got what, you don’t want to
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