On "rejection"

by Oded Goldreich

[Posted in response to Luca Trevisan's blog of April 26, 2006 (see In Theory). Following is a revised and more elaborated version of my comment. Further revised on June 3, 2006.]

In the context of this text, "rejection" means the non-granting of some resources that one wants and/or needs. I will argue that this term, which carries personal and emotional flavors, is actually inadequate for the current context...

I don't like the approach implicitly offered by Luca's blog. The fact that we cannot get what we want and/or need is a fundamentally sad reality that cannot be denied nor diminished. What is possible, in coping with this reality, is developing more mature attitudes towards it. In particular, it is possible to refuse to see in this reality more than there is in it and it is possible to try to reduce the harm by reconsidering our real needs. Details follow.

The first suggestion is focusing on the actual/real damage caused by not obtaining what we want and/or need, rather than reacting emotionally to the "rejection" message. In contrast, many people amplify the misfortune of not obtaining what they want and/or need by attributing a value judgment to this misfortune. For example, they feel that a denial of their application for a position means that they were "rejected" and/or that they were objectively judged not to be good enough (or be inferior to other candidates). This feeling is mistaken for several reasons.

  1. Organization that make decisions have their own agendas (which are sometimes even legitimate and reasonable), and decisions are made based on that agenda and not based on the merits of a specific application. Let alone that there may be several equally appealing applications, and the organization must chose one (which is bound to be a rather arbitrary decision, or a matter of luck). Thus, the organizations's decision may reflect its own agenda much more than the qualities of the application. This holds both for positive and negative decisions, but far more so for negative decisions. Thus, such decisions cannot be used as a basis for the evalutation of the application per se (i.e., per its own merits when devorced from the decision-making's agenda).
  2. Decisions are typically made by committees (and not by individuals), and the attribution of any (standard) rational to their decisions is mistaken. The "rational" of a committee's decision is merely the rational of a social process and/or a majority vote: a decision has to be made (for allocation of restricted resources) and so a decision is made by some social process of negotiation between committee members. At best, each committee member applies the best of her/his judgment (which she/he may believe to be objective) and thus makes a "artional" decision, but even then the final (aggregated) outcome is not "rational" (beyond the technical rationality of a majority vote or other arithmetics).
  3. A decision regarding a person refers to the current profile of the person (and maybe to what can be extrapolated based on it), whereas a person should care much more about his/her future development. Indeed, the most exciting and important personal mission is transcending our own perceived boundaries (both those perceived from the outside, but even more those poerceived from the inside). [Below, I will offer a more radical view of this issue.]

The second suggestion is considering the real necessity of the lost thing (i.e., the thing we did not get) and alternatives to it. That is, ask yourself what is your real need for the thing you did not get and whether good alternatives can be obtained. This is far more productive (not only to society but rather to the internal well-being of a person) than preoccupation in what was lost (and what this loss means beyond its mere reality (which, I claim, is nothing)).

Turning to a more radical view, I wish to protest against our society's preoccupation with "achievement" and/or "success" and against our individual acceptance of the "success/achievement ideology" (actually, there is a difference between achievement and success). Although the end result (reflected in an "achievement") is important especially to the society at large, the way is more important to an individual (and, at the last account, also very important to the society). For example, the individual search of the truth is more important to a person than some achievements obtained along the way (but indeed, at times, these achievements fuel the continuation of the search and are thus made important too). The various social benefits (e.g., salary and/or position) that, at times, enable the search are important only in that sense, and should be thought about accordingly. They cannot and should not substitute the real thing.

I guess some will say that it is easy for me to write all this, because I do have what I wanted etc. But this does not affect the truth value of what I said. Let alone that I didn't always get what I wanted. In fact, I guess I did learn to cope with not having what I wanted from very early age.

A side comment on achievement versus success: While the term achievement refers to something (of value) that was achieved by a person, the term success (esp., in common use) seems to focus on the impressions of other people (which at best refer to the achievement). Thus, success is twice removed from the actual process of searching, while achievement is removed from the process merely in focusing on one point in it. Furthermore, in many cases, the impression of success bears no reference to any achievement (let alone process of search).

[Written in May 2006, although I have held these opinions for decades and have preached them to many victims in the last decade or so.]

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