Advice To Grads: Go Out And Get Rejected

College students graduating this month are entering a still-precarious job market. Bill Shapiro's advice to them: Aim high; who cares if you get rejected? Shapiro knows the sting of rejection better than most — he is a collector of rejection letters. His trove includes a 1956 "thanks, but no thanks" from the Museum of Modern Art to Andy Warhol and a 1962 write-off of Jimi Hendrix by the U.S. Army, deriding him for being unable to "carry on an intelligent conversation." Shapiro joins guest host Tony Cox to talk about the value of rejection, and his new book, Other People's Rejection Letters.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

(Soundbite of music)

TONY COX, host:

This month and next, graduates across the country will leave the comfort and safety of college and head out into the cold, mean, real world. And while this has always been a daunting transition, it is especially so now in a precarious job market. Even typically upbeat President Obama stroke a pessimistic note when he spoke to University of Michigan grads earlier this month.

President BARACK OBAMA: The fact is, when you leave here today, you will search for work in an economy that is still emerging from the worst crisis since the Great Depression. You live in a century where the speed with which jobs and industries move across the globe is forcing America to compete like never before.

COX: Well, Bill Shapiro has some advice for these grads. Aim high. Who cares if you get rejected? Does he know what hes talking about? Well, we're about to see, because Shapiro is someone who knows the sting of rejection better than most. He recently sifted through more than 700 rejection form letters, poems, emails, and text messages. The result is his recently published collection Other Peoples Rejection Letters. And his conclusion: rejection is not so bad. In fact, it can be good.

Bill Shapiro, who is also the editor of LIFE.com, joins me from NPR's New York bureau.

Bill, nice to have you with us.

Mr. BILL SHAPIRO (Author, Other Peoples Rejection Letters, Editor LIFE.com): Thanks so much, Tony.

COX: It was a very interesting book, I must say. And before we get into some of the specific letters that you included in it, a lot of graduates as we say, are getting advice from their college counselors to be modest. You know, start small. Dont shy away from fetching coffee. Youre saying nah, forget about that. Go for your dream job, aren't you?

Mr. SHAPIRO: Yeah. I'd go the other way because chances are youre not going to get the job that you want and so you might as well, all things being equal, shoot high. Go for what you want. Go for what youre passionate about.

COX: Bill, what was the process of sorting through all these rejections letters?

Mr. SHAPIRO: I went through the better part of 700 letters. You know, they were scattered all over the floor of my apartment and, you know, in every size, shape, email, text message, Facebook post. You know, letters written in blood, in lipstick and crayon, so really the whole gamut.

COX: Like this one: Dear Doofus. I hate you, you stupid I won't say the rest of it. You are an idiot. P.S., when youre a teenager move to India. Your old friend, Alex. So there were a lot of very personal kinds of rejections, also, that you included here - in emails as well.

Mr. SHAPIRO: Yeah, that letter from Alex was because Doofus Kindle had popped his favorite balloon, so its like you know, stern letter to follow.

COX: You remember the letter in the book about Mr. Harvey Wax. Heres a person who wanted to go to Princeton University Law School and got a letter which - I guess you would have to read it to believe it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHAPIRO: I love this letter. Dear Mr. Wax, in reply to your recent letter, I regret that we must inform you that Princeton University has no law school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Thats amazing.

Mr. SHAPIRO: Now whats great about that letter is that Harvard, it turns out, did have a law school and Mr. Wax, although he couldnt quite figure out what kind of school Princeton was, got into Harvard and graduated.

COX: You know, when most people get a rejection letter, the first instinct is to bury it, to burn it, throw it away, put it in the trash can, rip it up, shred it, whatever. Pretend...

Mr. SHAPIRO: Feed it to the dog.

COX: Right. Pretend like it never happened. But you say save that letter. This seems masochistic. Why do you tell people to save such a painful thing?

Mr. SHAPIRO: I would say to save your rejection letters because they're really a badge of courage. They show that you reached high, that youre proud and that youre passionate about something. And years later, you'll look back on those letters and think to yourself yeah, I took a chance. I went for it.

COX: And even if you didnt get it that it was something a silver lining in a cloud, right, in a dark cloud.

Mr. SHAPIRO: And also, if you do make it big, you can look back in that letter and say that guy didnt see genius when it was starring him right in the face.

COX: One thing I want to ask you before we get to the letters is this, because you say that the same rejection letter can convince one person to give up on his or her dreams, while another person is convinced to work even harder to achieve theirs. What do you think makes this response to rejection so different?

Mr. SHAPIRO: Well, that's really the X factor and it comes down to each persons distinct personality. But, you know, there's actually a letter in the book from NASA to an astronaut - or a would-be astronaut - who tried to get into the program 15 times and was shut out every single time. And he said, you know what? I'm going to try one more time. And on the 16th time, he got in.

COX: Persistence paid off for him didn't it?

Mr. SHAPIRO: And perseverance.

COX: Yes, absolutely. So let's talk about some of the others that you have. There's one that's dated June 7th 1938. This was a fascinating letter, I thought. From Walt Disney Productions to Mary Ford of Arkansas. Now it appears that what Mary was applying for was a position in the Disney training program. So read that one and lets talk about it.

Mr. SHAPIRO: Dear Ms. Ford, your letter of recent data has been received in the inking and painting department for reply. Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed entirely by young men. For this reason, girls are not considered for the training school. The only work open to women consists of tracing the characters on clear celluloid sheets with India ink and filing in the tracing on the reverse side with paint according to directions.

COX: And now obviously, well, you didnt speak to her about getting this letter, I assuming.

Mr. SHAPIRO: I spoke to her grandson.

COX: To her grandson. And that's a crushing kind of letter. But in the back of the book there's a postscript where you tell the rest of the story which is what?

Mr. SHAPIRO: Well, this actually came a few months after Walt Disney released "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," so animated movies were on everybody's mind and Mary Ford tried to get the job and was rejected, as we just discussed. She shelved her would-be career in Hollywood and became a middle school art teacher in Arkansas. And she put the letter away, only taking it out once in a while. And when she died, her family knew it was meaningful to her and meant so much that they had it framed.

COX: Now, there's another letter in the book, and all of these aren't about successful people who or unsuccessful people, as the case may be, but this particular one involves Andy Warhol, one of the most renown artist in American history, who got a thanks but no thanks letter from New York's Museum of Modern Art. This is in 1956, before he was a household name. Read that one.

Mr. SHAPIRO: I'll start in the middle. I regret that I must report to you that the committee decided, after careful consideration, that they ought not accept your gift for our collection. Let me explain that because of our severely limited gallery and storage space, we must turn down many gifts offered since we feel it is not fair to accept, as a gift, a work which may be shown only infrequently.

And they go on to say basically, you can pick your art up around the back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: That's amazing. Now there is one here to a young enlisted man by the name of James Hendrix.

Mr. SHAPIRO: Yes. James Hendrix, of course, went on to become Jimi Hendrix. But in 1962 he was a private in the Army and this report was written about him. It goes like this. He's a habitual offender when it comes to making bed check, having missed bed check in March, April and May. At times, Hendrix isn't able to carry on an intelligent conversation, paying little attention to having been spoken to. Private Hendrix plays a musical instrument during his off-duty hours, or so he says. This is one of his faults because his mind apparently function while performing duties and thinking about his guitar.

COX: That's an amazing story. What kind of reaction have you gotten to the rejection letters included in this tome of rejection letters?

Mr. SHAPIRO: The reaction to the book has been really strong. People have, you know, on one level they love the voyeuristic quality of seeing other people's failures. But on the other end, you know, they also really relate to it because all of us have received rejection letters, whether it's in work or in love or creative pursuits. So it's something that we can all, you know, all relate to in all feel for better or worse, everywhere you look, you'll find rejection.

COX: Did you put any of your own rejection letters in here? If you did you didnt indicate it. I was wondering about that. Did you?

Mr. SHAPIRO: No, there are a couple. There are a couple that scarred me, you know.

COX: Yeah? That you - did doing this book about them help you get over that in any way?

Mr. SHAPIRO: Well, you know what's interesting is, when I was about halfway through compiling the letters, I realized, you know, I saw all these people taking amazing chances and getting rejected - for screenplays and novels and big jobs. And I realized that I didnt have enough rejection letters of my own. And so it really struck me that maybe I hadn't taken enough chances, taken enough risks in my life, that I'd kind of calibrated what I'd done to avoid rejection. And that's one of the reasons why to your earlier point I really suggest that new graduates go for it. Get out there and just take a big bold crazy chance.

COX: Here's my last question for you. Because you said that you went through hundreds and hundreds of letters of rejection to pick the ones that were appropriate for your book. So suppose someone had a rejection letter that they sent to you and you decided not to use it. So did you send them a rejection letter for not being included in a book about rejection letters?

Mr. SHAPIRO: Yeah. That became something of a joke and something of a sore point for some people, because not only did they get rejected from whatever it was they were going for, but then the guy collecting the rejection letter book said nah, your rejection letter isn't even good enough. But, I was very sensitive in sending my rejection letters for the rejection letter.

COX: Bill Shapiro is the editor of LIFE.com and the editor of the recently published collection called "Other People's Rejection Letters."

Bill, thank you very much.

Mr. SHAPIRO: Thanks, Tony.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: That's our program for today. Im Tony Cox and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We'll talk tomorrow.

(Soundbite of music)

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.