Embracing Rejection Fundamental to Healing Campus Culture

I recently listened to a podcast about a man who, upon determining that his personal and professional ambitions had stagnated, decided to seek out rejection for 100 consecutive days. During the experiment, Mr. Jia Jiang sought out rejection with foolproof ideas: he asked for a “burger refill” at a restaurant, offered to plant a flower in someone else’s yard, and requested $100 from a stranger. As is perhaps to be expected, Jiang received a lot of “no”s to his requests. However — amazingly — Jiang was met with a “yes” 51 out of the 100 days. Embracing rejection led Jiang to take more measured risks and finally achieve his goals of becoming an author and entrepreneur.

The culture Obies inhabit is obsessed with success; social media platforms, family members, and educational institutions alike frequently broadcast messages of both achievement and struggle. Somewhat frustratingly, we are told the latter is a prerequisite for the first by people who enter very different professional environments than us. Because of this, we are often afraid to fail.

As college students, we are often inundated with, (at times, unsolicited) advice about our futures. We are smugly told to brace for impact upon graduation: Without the cushy support of an insulated liberal campus, our twenties will be full of difficulty and rejection — both personal and professional.

Liberal arts institutions and the values that they stand for are floundering in a society that is increasingly focused on traditional, monetary measures of success. The world is converging due to globalization and technological connectivity, making the labor market more fluid and competitive than ever.

How are we supposed to attain success — whatever that means — in an environment that seems like it wants us to fail?

The ever-elusive future is a source of apprehension for many college students. During my time at Oberlin, I have heard a plethora of attitudes on the subject expressed. While some students seem to be in a state of constant panic about their post-graduation lives, others shrug off the very notion that there exists a time beyond the present. There is a certain element of privilege that comes with the ability to think about something other than surviving moment to moment. However, it is also a privilege to be able to ignore the future or to be unconcerned with what you’re doing post-graduation.

Entitlement aside, anxiety stemming from this uncertainty undercuts our ability to enjoy the present and results in a campus culture rife with stressed individuals. According to a Student Senate survey conducted February 2018, almost 49 percent of students have previously or recently considered leaving Oberlin; clearly, Oberlin students are not immune to stressful academic standards and our societal obsession with avoiding failure and achieving success at all costs.

Part of the reason we are so obsessed with avoiding failure is because avoiding failure in all our various endeavors keeps us busy — and therefore, on the road to “success.” Oberlin students are proud of their busy-ness. Busyness is what makes us desirable to future employers or graduate schools. However, Oberlin is also a genuinely impassioned community that cares about our academics, hobbies, and social and political causes. Sadly, this busyness culture can be toxic. Our hectic schedules, dedication to our studies, and endless search for internships and volunteer opportunities often come at the expense of sleep, healthy eating habits, and social interactions.

We opt into this culture because if we don’t, we’re outsiders. We won’t fit in with our fellow students, who seem to jump from one opportunity to the next and are apparently immune to failure. This is a dangerous way to think — unconsciously or not — and we must do something about it.

We must reconcile our collective fear of failure in order to adopt a healthier, more balanced approach toward our lives at Oberlin and beyond. While ambition and hustle are admirable traits, so is understanding that we are not bound to any one measure of success. We must acknowledge failure and talk about it openly and honestly with each other.

Oberlin students certainly have a lot to offer the world. However, I am acutely aware of the abundance of issues we face as a community, including the fractured modes of communication that lead to a perceived apathy toward one another. Perhaps greater institutional opportunities for facilitated discussion are a way to build empathy and improve the more toxic aspects of Oberlin culture. Still, I think an easier step toward this same goal is to be more forthright in acknowledging our failures and embracing rejection.

I’ll start: I applied to over 65 internships this past fall and was rejected from most of them. I quit my varsity athletics team this year, in part because I felt like I failed to fully commit to my team and sport. Overscheduled and at times overwhelmed I dropped the ball on some really important academic and extracurricular assignments. In other words, I’ve failed, and I’ve failed often. Naming these failures has allowed me to make peace with them, and I encourage all Oberlin students to try it out.