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 respected 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 a 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 2011 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.