While strolling through Twitter one day, I came across a tweet that was very interesting. It was a wall that advertised rejection. On it was listed “Nick’s many rejections” and showed multiple rejections from the world of academics. The tweet got a lot of impressions and clearly made an impact on people.
The tweet is from Dr. Nick Hopwood, a 37-year old associate professor in the education faculty at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia. The many rejections are posted on his office window. What caused him to post his rejections in such a public forum, where others try at great lengths to hide their failures? I called him at lunch time in Sydney, so late into the evening here in Canada, to chat and find out.
Evan: So I came across what I think is your most famous tweet, which is the rejection wall. What is the rejection wall?
Dr. Nick Hopwood: Well I spent a lot of time doing workshops with students in various different countries around publishing. The question that they most often ask is “how do I get my paper accepted?” Well that’s the impossible question. Peer reviewed means that really good papers get rejected and shit ones get accepted. I asked them to put their hand up if they’d read a paper that they didn’t think was very good and they all said yeah.
I increasingly get them thinking about rejection and good and bad reasons for rejection. Good reasons are you were just unlucky and you got the wrong reviewer on the wrong day, and bad reasons are you didn’t do your homework or you sent it to the wrong journal.
Then I started collecting nasty reviews that I’d had, and found lots of other people were sharing them in various ways. It’s been boiling for a while, and I’ve got this now growing collection of rejection letters: ones I’ve received, dished out, or other people have given me.
I kept talking to people and realized that the front of my door had all the front pages of all the articles I’d written the past few years. It made me feel great, and I’ve had a pretty privileged run through adacemia. I realized it was probably doing more for my ego than other peoples, and I just thought “well, I’ll take it down and do the opposite.” So I’ve created these PowerPoint slides with the reject stamp on them and some quotes from reviews, the names of the grants I didn’t get. The one thing I’m missing is nasty comments I’ve had from students in teaching feedback. When I have a bored afternoon, I’ll dig all those out as well.
E: So why show off rejection as opposed to the success?
N: It’s not a flippant thing, at least I hope it’s not. Firstly because I think it’s unfortunate in academia that successes are disproportionately visible. It’s very easy to walk around a department or to read somebody’s CV or come across them as an author and to imagine they are these perfect authors for whom everything gets accepted and nothing gets changed. There are various things that are starting to shift that, for example some journals in biochemistry that publish the reviews. They’re still anonymous, but at least in that sense you get to see the mangle that a paper has gone through.
Every journal I read all you ever see is the finished product, so it’s as if that’s what the author wrote first time. Instinctively you know it’s gone through to and fro and contestation. I think partly it’s about trying not to engage in practices that support the myth of the perfect academic, or in fact of unblemished, clean or pure academic work. It always goes through a mess.
It has a value in that many people are increasingly in vulnerable positions in academia. Rejection is even harder to take when you’re on a contract job, or a fixed term job. You’re thinking about whether or not putting that on your CV can determine if you can get an income next year or not. That’s really, really tough to deal with and I’ve been occasionally in that position. I think normalizing the fact that even people who eventually end up in these secure and privileged positions continue to get rejected. Rejection has been a consistent part of how I even got here.
E: In your post about the rejection wall, you talk about how advertising just the finished product is “living life without the outtakes,” which I thought was a really great line because it relates not just to academic but to how a lot of people portray themselves online, in social media, and kind of the way they live their life. Why is it so hard for people to live with the outtakes in?
N: I think it makes us vulnerable, or we feel vulnerable in the act of doing so. I don’t think it’s necessarily a raw kind of egoism, or kind of “aren’t I great” kind of thing. We are constantly bombarded with messages that privilege and value a certain kind of being in the world. Increasingly in schools where you have high stakes testing, it’s almost as if a pupil’s job in the school is to perform for the school, not the school’s job to lift up the student.
Every time your tested and ranked and graded in school based on what you’ve done, there is this kind of message that doing well is okay and we talk less about the not doing well.
There are also quite unhelpful discourses about failure. They are helpful in the sense that they try to normalize it, and there are some really famous people who have done that. J.K. Rowling being one, and lots of actors and things like that. You talk to people on the Graham Norton Show and it’s often a warts-and-all account of the jobs they didn’t get. It makes me uncomfortable when the consequence of that is a “suck it up” discourse.
I’d be more in kind to think of what can we put around the person to help them cope with that circumstance, rather than say that somehow you’ve got to find this magical thing inside and blast your way through as if it doesn’t hurt. It does hurt. Institutionally normalizing rejection is part of how we might then encourage people to be confident in seeking help, rather than having to rely on yourself to dig deeper.
I would love it if colleagues kept knocking on my door every day and said “look at this gem of a rejection I got today,” because I think that would go against what you’re talking about which is this need to constantly be publicly performing as a successful version of yourself. Everybody knows we don’t get jobs sometimes, whether it’s in academic life or outside. Most of the people who run a race don’t win.
E: To me that’s the beauty of sports. I love when younger kids are put in sports where they keep score because of the ability to normalize losing, failing, however you want to phrase it. Making sure that they know “yes, you lost this time, but you will have another game, you will have another season. There will be times where you will be better, or the outcome will be different if you are willing to keep working.” So it’s almost like through sport you can remove some of the stigma of failing early on, hopefully, so someone who becomes a student more acclimated to it by the time that they are older.
N: I think when it’s done well and done right, it has the potential. The same with music, getting involved in competitions and things like that, you see it very much. It’s amazing how much actually rejection and failure is made public through things like Pop Idol or The X-Fcator or other things. These are people who are clearly very committed, who invest a lot in these things, and they publicly stand up knowing only one of them will go through that process without being told that it’s all over and it has come to nothing.
There are aspects of life where we entertain not being a winner. Sports, music, other aspects of popular culture. Somehow, performance of the imperfect self is still tricky.
E: Is it that there is a stigma around failure, do you think?
N: It could well be true. It’s interesting the reaction to the failure wall would suggest that that is not the case. People are saying “oh, that’s so reassuring.” My favourite reactions are ones where people said “Oh my, my wall isn’t big enough.”
I certainly think there is a kind of silent stigma around it, a rendering secret or private around it that may create the illusion of stigma. I think many reasonable people would see other people failing and not dismiss them as rubbish. Acknowledge failure is a normal part of their existence, so it would be odd if you therefore didn’t acknowledge it as a part of somebody else’s. I don’t think people stigimatize failure, I think we secretize it and we hide it, and we do other things to massage it out of our central lives.
The reason I’m cautious about that is that if I think of something where I really think there may be some problems around stigma might be mental health, where people’s reactions to mental health are still problematic. I don’t think people’s reactions to failure are problematic in that way. We don’t make it visible so people can react.
E: A lot of people who read my work are university students or young professionals who just graduated. Do you have advice or words of wisdom for dealing with rejection in that stage of life?
N: I was talking to a nurse the other day, who said emotionally, we’re still developing in our early twenties. Our reactions to things is different towards things than it would be when we’re towards mid-life. So we are still vulnerable, and universities are kind of hyper-performative areas. Get your tutorial right, or your exams, and particularly in North America with the grade point average. You can’t drop a ball for half an hour because it starts getting effected, which wasn’t the case when I did my degree.
One thing first: when you’re thinking about you as a person and rejection, the most generous thing you can do is to be supportive around others. If you get the sense that someone is feeling they’ve failed or been hopeless, talk openly or be available to them. We know it’s hard. Don’t force people into the public about it, or fail-shaming people, but being that person who when somebody fails saying quietly to the side that it’s happened to you as well. One of the most effective and impactful things we can do is to be honest and candid about our rejections or our failures.
Then when we get to ourselves, it’s an effective but not easy thing to do: finding someone with whom you are comfortable to open up about this. That’s part of creating these practices where it’s less of a secret thing. It doesn’t mean you stand on a pedestal or stick it on your door like I did. I wouldn’t expect or judge anybody for doing it or not doing it. Hopefully people can find a corner, or a relationship, or something within which we can be open about this and admit that it’s horrible.
I wouldn’t feel comfortable to just say to just remind yourself that everybody fails all the time and just pull yourself up by the bootstraps and get on with it. I think it is important that we don’t allow ourselves to be crushed by failure, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not crushing.
E: One more question. What is your favourite joke?
After some serious debate, he went with one that created legitimate out-loud laughter:
N: There is one I read this morning, but it’s not really a joke. It’s something like:
A gay guy, a black man, an old woman, and a nun walk into a bar and the barman says “what’ll it be?”
And that’s it, because we’re not in the 1950s anymore.
Dr. Hopwood had some great points about rejection in academia, which were lessons that can transfer over to the rest of life. Rejection doesn’t need to be publicized in the same way that he did, but we should try to make it a more normal part of our lives. We all experience it in different forms and at different times, so maybe being more supportive of those going through failures is something we can all work on.
To read more about Dr. Hopwood’s work, read his blog here.
To follow Dr. Hopwood on Twitter and learn more about higher education and his work, follow this link.