“You don’t seem cut out for business.” That’s what some guy from Harvard Business School essentially told me when I called to find out why they’d rejected me in 1990. He went through the reasons in brutal detail, while I took copious notes and fought off despair on the other end of the line.

I hadn’t seen my business school rejection letters in decades, and came across them this morning in a box in the basement (I’ll get them framed now for safekeeping). I also found the notes I took from that brutal phone call (see below).

HBS rejection letter.png

Rejection letters are a wonderful thing, because they remind you that nothing worth doing is easy, and that you can overcome setbacks if you want something badly enough and you can listen to constructive feedback.

GSB rejection letter.png

I did follow up calls with both Harvard and Stanford (back then they let you do that) to understand why they’d rejected me.

Stanford encouraged me to re-apply, and gave me good suggestions for my next application. Harvard basically said don’t bother, that I should either consider a lesser business school, or maybe a journalism or public policy program. I reapplied the next year to Stanford – following most of the advice they’d given me – and got in.

I wish I could find some of my other rejection letters, like my undergrad ones (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth…) and some of my more humiliating job rejections (Microsoft rejected me for a product manager position on DOS, if you can believe that, and Knight-Ridder rejected me for a newspaper management job).

It seems that I just never quite fit the mold, when organizations were looking for someone who fit a mold.

So to my nieces and nephews, and anyone else who might be reading this: 1) Keep your rejection letters; and 2) Don’t let rejection undermine your confidence. Listen for whatever useful feedback you can, and then keep on going!

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