Essays on Technology and Culture

On Being Told No

This past Thursday, I interviewed for a job that I was barely qualified for. This wasn’t apparent when I started the whole process, but as the interview progressed, it dawned on me that if I did get the job, I would be in over my head and have to tread water, fast. Despite that, I felt the interview went well enough that the job was in my grasp. Friday, I obsessively checked my e-mail, hoping for a response. Same thing on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. At last, a little after five o’clock on Monday evening, I got the news.

They told me no.

And I’m fine with that. “No” is not the answer I wanted, true, but it was the answer I was prepared for. As They Might Be Giants said, “If it wasn’t for disappointment / I wouldn’t have any appointments”. But, disappointment is not the same thing as failure. I don’t feel like a failure because I was told “no.” That I even got a chance to interview, to show off my skills on the command line to an audience and have the opportunity to prove myself based on a polite e-mail message and a couple of portfolio pieces is enough to make me feel like I won something.

I tried. They said no. Time to dust myself off and try again.

The fear of rejection, the fear of being told “no” stands in the way of so many of us. Nobody likes to be denied something. When the opportunity to go for something that’s so far out of our reach comes to us, we freeze. “What if I don’t succeed?” we tell ourselves. “What if they say no?” Truth is, as my father says, the worst thing that could happen is that they tell you “no.” They can tell you “no” in many ways. They can be polite about it, or they can punch you in the gut. They can say it quietly, or they can scream it until your ears bleed. They can use flowery, verbose language that makes it sound like they’re not saying much of anything at all, or they can be blunt. It’s all still “no.”

I suspect part of it comes from expectations, and the way people define themselves on their successes and failures. Nobody wants to be branded a failure, but we all have far more failures than we have successes. Allow me to quote myself:

Failure is seen by many to be a permanent state. I blame report cards. That F you got in first quarter English goes on your Permanent Record, or so they say. You failed, and therefore you shall be forever branded as “The Failure,” right? Guaranteed, inside of a decade, or less, nobody will remember your failure except you, much as nobody will remember you getting a boner when standing in front of Ms. Grundy’s classroom in 5th Grade.

On Cultivating a Superego

I don’t have the psychology and sociology background to explain Western society’s distinct love of shortcuts to success, to the point where books like The Secret sells over twenty-one million copies. Despite it, there’s a wonderful dichotomy between the fetishization of success, and the lengths people are willing are to go to skip the work. Even I would occasionally chip in two bucks to the office Powerball fund, despite knowing the insane odds against winning. What’s the worst that can happen? I’m out two bucks that would have gone into the snack machine, anyway.

There is a scarier prospect than being told “no.” and that’s this: What if they said “yes?”

Then, in this case, it would have been brown-trousers time. Because it’s something I wanted, I would have dived in with gusto. However, for just as many people afraid of failure, there are as many or more afraid of success. For most things we try, failure just means we’re back where we were before. Success means that everything changes, and nobody likes change. The best part of being in a stuck in a rut is that it’s your rut. It’s made for you, or you for it, like Douglas Adams’s puddle. Some force has to shake us out of our rut, and that force can be either internal or external. Sometimes it’s both. We also don’t like stagnation.

Perhaps the fears we have of both of those little words, “no” and “yes,” come from our own internal dichotomy. There’s an endless tug of war between the two conflicting sides of ourself—Seth Godin’s Lizard Brain, and our better, higher self. Unless you have a lot of mental training, they both have the same level of control. When one wins, the other loses, and they both hate to lose. They’re not afraid to show it, either. Even worse is that you have to listen to them, because they are you. You can shut one up, or the other, but only for a little while. You just have to choose. Whichever of those angry, scared voices pops up to remind you that you could be told “yes” or “no” and to be afraid, you tell that voice to shut up.