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Rejection: How to profit from life's setbacks

Stanford luminaries share personal stories of failure in 'resilience project'

Rejection.

Many Stanford University students -- having assiduously polished their grades and resumes to gain admission to the university -- have never really experienced it.

Some of Stanford's high-profile professors, students and alumni now are sharing their personal memories of rejection in a project to teach "failure-deprived" undergraduates not to be defeated by setbacks but to capitalize on them.

In the Resilience Project, computer-science professor and former Google research scientist Mehran Sahami recounts rejection letters for jobs he badly wanted; Pandora founder Tim Westergren recalls experiencing hundreds of rejections, and former freshman dean Julie Lythcott-Haims tells of feeling crushed after earning a D in the first quarter of her freshman year.

"I just saw that as the university's indication that I was in fact the one admission mistake in the great class of '89," Lythcott-Haims recalls in a video on the Stanford Resilience Project website.

"If I failed at this class that was supposed to be the easy entry point to academic life, then clearly I was not cut out for anything, so that was hard."

When she finally told her parents, "they reacted beautifully," told her they loved her and helped her find resources at Stanford to help her get back on track.

"Over the 20-plus years from that D in communications, I've learned how to sit with those disappointments and not let them become me," said Lythcott-Haims, a Harvard Law School graduate who recently resigned to study writing and poetry after 14 years as an award-winning Stanford adviser and dean.

"I sit and examine them and take from them what I can and learn from them. ... I strengthen myself and become a stronger, more effective person as a result of that bad thing instead of feeling that bad thing is the cloak that I'm wearing as I walk through life."

Other Stanford luminaries sharing their stories with the Resilience Project include award-winning writer and English professor Tobias Wolff, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, HP CFO Cathie Lesjak, novelist and School of Medicine Professor Abraham Verghese and retired chemistry professor Carl Djerassi, famous for his contribution to the development of the birth-control pill.

The project was launched in 2010 by Adina Glickman, associate director for academic support at Stanford's Center for Teaching & Learning. She was inspired by Harvard University's "Success/Failure Project," which generated a handbook for students called "Reflections on Rejections."

"I thought our students are similar and that it would be good to start something speaking to the same issues for Stanford students," said Glickman, who coaches students who are struggling with academic or other issues.

"A lot of times, when you're feeling stressed, you feel like you're the only one," she said.

Last year Glickman and her steering committee assembled a wish list of Stanford faculty and alumni they hoped would share their stories and began approaching people.

So far, she said, "Nobody's turned us down. In fact, the most common response is, 'Which of the stories should I talk about?'"

Of the 16 interviews posted so far, several -- including those of Lesjak, Djerassi, O'Connor and Breyer -- are restricted to viewers with a Stanford password. Glickman said that's either at the request of the interviewee or because she hasn't had a chance to clear it with the subject.

She plans to continue adding stories, with a new focus on student stories, at the request of other students.

Stanford students are "amazingly diverse in personality and outlook and world view," Glickman said.

While some have never known rejection, others have overcome huge obstacles of poverty and homelessness but haven't figured out how to transfer those coping skills to academic life in an elite institution. Others, when met with a challenge, know to roll up their sleeves and say, "What can I do differently?"

"It's a full range, but Stanford is such a challenging place to be that almost everyone feels at some point they don't belong and they were the admission mistake, and it challenges their sense of belonging and sense of capacity," she said.

In July, Glickman presented the Resilience Project to fellow educators attending the National Resource Center's International Conference on the First-Year Experience.

"There was a lot of interest by people in developing something similar" on other campuses, she said.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Surprised
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 13, 2012 at 4:15 am

I know this is going to get flamed, and every generation gets criticism, it doesn't mean everyone or even the majority are like this, but, being completely honest here, I've noticed a diturbing trend in some younger people that really took me by surprise. When faced with critical feedback - the kind that is of no consequence except to help improve - the response is not to improve, not to believe they could get better, but to retaliate or lie to avoid accepting any responsibility, even for inconsequential things.

It's been most noticeable in the 20 - 30 yr age range. I have relatives in academia in other parts of the country who have noticed the same. It's made me wonder if it has exacerbating he unemployment among this age group, because i've seen quite a number of situations where this behavior resulted in the person losing a job, but because they are to unable to accept any feedback (which resulted in their losing the job), they blamed anyone involved, not their own lack of ability to learn and grow from mistakes.

They can't seem to accept making a mistake, to the point of continually compromising their integrity, and they don't realize what everyone else sees. We're not talking incompetent people covering for it, either, we're talking otherwise very promising people who downright sabotage their ability to get better - and with it, their work - because they can't wrap thir heads aroung making mistakes and seeing them as opportunities to improve.

Again, I'm not saying all are like this, in fact I would also claim there is also a very civic-minded element in the age group (not the same people, I would wager), but this inability to accept ANY criticism or feedback and benefit from it, but instead to become angry or to construct elaborate lies to try to deflect the criticism, used to be just the domain of the incompetent. Now it's otherwise promising young people who are MAKING themselves incompetent without even realizing it.

I applaud this initiative and hope it helps.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Tyler Hanley
digital editor of Palo Alto Online
on Aug 13, 2012 at 8:11 am

Tyler Hanley is a registered user.

The following comment was moved from a duplicate thread:

Posted by Ademola Adesanya, a resident of another community, 6 hours ago:

Dean Julie Lythcott-Haims had only a D in her first semester as a freshman, I had three Ds from 5 classes in my first semester at CSU,Chico in 1982. The first semester of College is usually the hardest for anyone. With 3 Ds, I ended up on academic probation, and I really wanted to die.

My problem was making the adjustment from Africa to the US system of education. Y'know, being a foreign student from Africa/Nigeria and paying thousands of dollars in out of state tuition fees, for all of that money to be wasted, that semester was the saddest point in my life because there were over one billion things that my parents could have used that money for in Africa and I did not send my report card to Nigeria. To make matters worse, Chico being a College town, it turned to a ghost town when everybody went home for Xmas holidays, and I was all alone in Chico, alone and very lonely. The next semester, two of my Professors graciously allowed me to do some extra work to improve on my GPA (God bless the souls of these two Professors in subjects Philosophy and Psychology Professor Bill Kalberer was the Psychology Professor), two of the Ds were elevated to C's after completion of the extra work leaving only one D,next, during Xmas intersession, I took a course and got a B, that got me out of academic probation which made me very happy. Since then I never looked back and I adapted very fast to the American system of education. It's OK to fail but you learn from it and then bounce back or keep on trying until you make it. Most people talk about a Plan "B" from failure, there is no plan "B" in College, it's either you do well in all your classes and graduate or you won't, and failure is not an option, you must get out of it and graduate.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by wmd
a resident of Stanford
on Aug 13, 2012 at 8:53 am

I wonder if Condi is going to contribute her story about her failed hunt for WMDs in Iraq. Her failure costs thousands of lives and a trillion dollars.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Observer
a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 13, 2012 at 1:09 pm

I have noticed it is ADULTS that are easily offended in this area, lashing out in blogs, and taking any little thing personally, attacking who they consider an opponent, instead of being able to communicate with others about issues and in an adult fashion.

Many will name call, point fingers and not take responsibility for their own lack of knowledge (or doing ones homework) redirecting a point to ATTACK another unrelated issue, being overall, hostile.

If these are the people that younger people are using as an example of how to behave, it's no wonder so many now can't take rejection or open their minds to see the silver lining in an adverse situation, or see the light at the end of a tunnel. Instead, they are crushed by it.

Further, this is the group that had the parents with the "MY CHILD WAS STUDENT OF THE MONTH" bumper stickers, correct? Is this not the generation that got a trophy, for just showing up? Everyone wins. No losers = no opportunity for character building.

Good thing experts are aware of this, and are trying to help the next generation.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Gunn Class of '67
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 13, 2012 at 9:22 pm

Gunn Class of '67 is a registered user.

Would love resilience right about now. City attorney putting friend out on street - no cause whatsoever. Deleted disabilities of record and dumped like trash.
Heartbreaking to watch a giver dissembled before my eyes.
Guess fine with him - she's a seniot.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 14, 2012 at 11:15 am

@ wmd:

Hmmm. Maybe Obama will be listed here for his resilience in the shadow of his failed search for the "summer of recovery," the "deficit cut in half by the end of his first term," unemployment "will never climb to 8%," "not raise a dime in taxes for people making $150K or under" and "policies that will stave off inflation for groceries and fuel."

As for this project, I think that it is important for people to see failure, meet it head on and rise above it. Life is not always handed to us on a silver platter. Most of the time, we work through adversity and literally "take it by the horns."


 +   Like this comment
Posted by back to topic Nay
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 14, 2012 at 11:30 am

Nayeli said "Maybe Obama will be listed here for his resilience" Oh, he will.

In November.

- 28 months of private sector job growth resulting in 4 million new jobs

vs

- a couple guys that want to end Medicare so they can afford to double down on the Bush tax cuts for the rich; in fact their tax plans would lowerr mitt's tax rate from 13% to less than 1% Web Link#

Easy choice. That's why the fight post-election between the various factions of the losing republican party (when corporatist Romney, fiscal Ryan, the evangelicals, the tea party all go after each others throats for not getting the White House or the Senate, and losing 20+ seats in the House) is going to be quite interesting in a schadenfreude sort of way.

Ricj guys asking the rest of us to sacrifice for their wealth.

Thats why the swing state polls already show Obama winning the swing states by an 80-100 electoral vote margin. Now it's all about coattails.

Good times. Time to run up the score and bury the tea party for good.

Now let's get back to the topic.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jeff
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 14, 2012 at 1:47 pm

President Obama is a stirling example of how to overcome setbacks. He was of mixed race, when that was not a popular thing to be. He did get get many benefits from that situation, like affirmative action, but he still suffered from his situation.

President Obama identified with his own identiy (Black) and attended a Black Liberation churh, as is his right. He then got caught up in the racist overtones of that church. He overcame this setback by throwing his racist minister under the bus.

President Obama pulled the plug on Iraq, at the same time surging in Afghanistan. Now, both Iraq and Afghanistan are headed south, according to the pullout deadlines that he set, for political purposes. His generals told him not to do it. There is much current and future blood on Obama's plate.

Obama can take such setbacks, because he is a Black President that does not need to accept responsibility...he gets a pass, from the liberal press and liberals, despite all the suffering that he has caused.

Hmmm...maybe Obama profits from life's setbacks by defining himself as Black, then ignoring the responsibilies that he would face, if he defined himself as White.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 14, 2012 at 2:14 pm

@ back to topic Nay:

First of all, I was responding to the person who took a cheap shot at Dr. Condi Rice. So, if it was "off topic," it was in response to someone who strayed off topic.

Secondly, you can claim that Obama created 4 Million jobs all you want -- but it doesn't change the fact that unemployment went UP under his presidency...and his policies haven't fixed anything. If Obama wants credit for "creating" or "saving" 4 Million jobs, then will he also assume credit for the even more jobs that were lost and never came back?

And, finally, it was OBAMA who cut $740 BILLION from Medicare. Do you not know this...or are you simply ignoring it?

Yeah, I wouldn't vote for this current President. He has a record of failure and futility and thinks that Americans are too stupid to remember all of that "hope and change" that he promised for his first term.

I wasn't a fan of Bush...and I am not a fan of the back door politics of Barack Obama either. I am willing to give Romney/Ryan a chance. If they aren't successful, we will look elsewhere in four years.

And, like I said in my last post after I responded to the wmd, I think that this is a noble and much-needed program.


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