If you’re a recent graduate looking to enter the workforce, then congratulations on your achievement. It can be easy to assume that, having crossed the finish line of your studies, the hard part must now be over.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
If you’ve ever applied for a scholarship, a job, or an award before, then you will know that not every step forward will result in success. Setbacks and complications are a natural part of life, and though they can feel crushing, they can also teach us about perspective, resilience, and seeing the bigger picture.
Setbacks range in severity. As an aspiring novelist, I receive rejection emails from literary agents and publishers on a daily basis when querying a new manuscript. When I first began sending query letters, every rejection felt like a direct attack. From correspondence addressed to ‘dear author’ to sloppy copy-and-paste reply templates that still included the names of other aspiring writers and their works, I really felt not only my own insignificance but also a complete sense of disrespect.
Most literary agents are based in the United States, so there is a huge time difference between us. That means that these rejections usually arrive in the middle of the night and are waiting for me every morning as soon as I wake up. Honestly? It sucks. But as time goes on, I’ve realised two things: the people on the other end of my queries were only human, and the rejections weren’t personal, they were just business.
Given how loaded the word ‘rejection’ is, it can be hard not to take it personally, but trust me when I say that you shouldn’t. There’s no one sitting at the other end of your query letter or job application taking delight in sending you a rejection. Their attention is purely on themselves and their daily work duties, and just as you have sent out your query or application, so too must they answer one way or the other. Everyone is the main character of their own lives and for the people you encounter in your day-to-day life, ridiculing others simply doesn’t factor into their personal narrative. As for the mistakes in addressing me or misnaming my work, I’ve simply learned to move on. To err is human after all, and who amongst us has never made a mistake? That’s not to say you won’t encounter people that are needlessly brusque or critical, but try to recognise that their attitude is a reflection upon them and not you.
Rejections for query letters which I send by the dozen are no longer even a blip in my day. Sure, at times I can get a little disappointed, but I am no longer devastated because with each rejection comes the opportunity to try again.
Many literary agents operate by a ‘no response means no’ policy whereby if they don’t respond, then they aren’t interested in pursuing your project. However, the industry-standard response time is three months, so I vastly prefer the certainty of the red light of rejection to the yellow light of limbo. Waiting is wasting but rejection is redirection.
This mindset works for those harder setbacks too. A few years ago, my spouse received a job offer interstate and we uprooted our lives on very short notice, leaving behind our families and friends. For us, this was it. This was the moment our lives were changing, we were on the up-and-up, we had worked so hard. We were finally seeing the fruits of our labours. There were difficulties along the way, of course, but they were small and we could manage. The big problem, however, came less than twelve months later when COVID-19 hit. Through unforeseen circumstances, the opportunity we had moved for disappeared from within our grasp and I fell into despair. Moving interstate and leaving behind our support network had cost us, both financially and emotionally, and now we had nothing to show for it. We were both affected by this shocking change but the way my spouse faced it struck me to my core. When I questioned how they could keep going, they simply said, “I’m not done yet.”
This level of resilience was alien to me. In my mind, we hadn’t only lost the race, but also been kicked and trampled by life in the moment when it was all meant to be coming together. To my spouse, however, the finish line had simply shifted. We were still moving forward, our destination was just a little different, and that was okay.
Learning that Nothing is Final
One of the hardest lessons I have had to learn in my personal journey to understanding setbacks is that nothing is final and no decision I make has to be forever. I’m in an extremely fortunate position in that my spouse supports me while I work towards becoming a novelist. However, it has been a few years now with no upward momentum, no successes to speak of, and I wonder how I can even call this a setback when I’ve never succeeded in taking a step forward. I frequently question if I should give up on this dream and re-enter the workforce, but that feels like a failure, which is the wrong way to frame these decisions. Re-entering the workforce doesn’t mean I have failed or that I have to stop writing. Nor does it mean I can never return to being the homemaker spouse while I work on my craft. I must simply remember that any action I take is merely a step on the journey, not the final destination.
You might be in a similar position. You might not succeed in getting your first-choice placement, a scholarship you need, or a position at your dream company, and it can feel like the end. Remember, though, that it’s only the end if you let it be so.
There’s nothing wrong with taking a breather or exploring other pathways because rests and detours still move you forward. The years I have spent might not have any tangible victories in the form of agent representation or publication, but I’ve practised my craft, written several manuscripts, and honed writing query letters, synopses, and pitches. Though I might not know where the finish line is or where my journey is leading me, I know I am moving forward one step at a time even when facing setbacks.
As the saying goes: everything will be okay in the end, and if it’s not okay, then it’s not the end.