Reveling in Rejection

How I got rejected at Wharton and learned one of life’s most important lessons

Rejection by a qualified prospect means that you, personally, have failed to accurately communicate the potential of the product or service you are trying to sell. 

In the fall of my third year of college I decided to pursue an MBA at the Wharton Graduate School of Business. Although I was only 19 and a junior at Lehigh University, I told my friends that I was going to Wharton “next year.” Then I applied for admission.

On Monday, April 8, 1974, at 9:00 a.m., I got rejected. I had called the Wharton admissions office to inquire about the status of my application. The receptionist retrieved my file and read my rejection letter to me. The letter thanked me for applying, and suggested that I finish college, get two years of work experience, and reapply.

I hung up the phone, then called back, again and again, trying in vain to schedule an appointment with the Director of Admissions to appeal the decision. Finally, realizing that I had nothing to lose, I left an obnoxious message explaining that I needed to speak with the Director of Admissions “before I report what happened to the Board of Trustees.” A short while later the admissions office called back and gave me an appointment to see the Director at 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday, April 10, 1974.

On Wednesday morning, I attended my 8:00 a.m. Art History class at Lehigh. The class was a one hour lecture about the Spanish artist Joan Miro, whom I had never heard about before this class.

When the class ended, I drove to Philadelphia for my meeting at Wharton. On the drive down, I realized that I still didn’t know what I was going to tell the Director of Admissions.

When I walked into the Admissions office, the Director was on the telephone with the university bookstore. He had just purchased a signed lithograph by the artist Joan Miro, and was promising to come right over with a $1,500 check to pay for it. When he put down the phone, I repeated to him everything I had just learned about Miro, exploiting his fascination with the artist and his need for reassurance that the lithograph was a good purchase. Then I asked him if I could see the print. He jumped up and we walked to the university bookstore, continuing to talk about Miro on the way. When we saw the print, I congratulated him on his purchase and he invited me to lunch.

At lunch, I told him that I wanted to get my MBA from Wharton. He asked about my ATGSB (now called GMAT) score and grades, and told me that, with my interest in things like modern art, I was exactly the kind of well-rounded applicant they were looking for.

After lunch we went back to his office and he checked his appointment book. It was then he realized that I was the person who had left the obnoxious phone message. I protested how I had tried “nicely” to see him but that his office had left me no choice—leaving that message was the only way I could get to see him. He then dictated to his secretary a new letter granting me acceptance subject to my taking two summer school courses and getting my bachelor’s degree from Lehigh.

I began my studies as a Wharton MBA student later that year at age 20.

I was terrified my first day at Wharton. The majority of my classmates were graduates of Ivy League schools; Harvard and Yale led the list. I wrote my mother a letter expressing my concern that while my classmates had been accepted based on their experience, grades and intelligence, I had manipulated my way into the school. Despite these feelings of inferiority, I graduated from Wharton near the top of my class—finishing the two-year MBA program in only 15 months at the age of 22—and landed a prestigious job with Citibank.

Looking back, I succeeded at Wharton, in part, because of the inferiority complex that I developed from my initial rejection. At the time, I didn’t realize that I would soon experience initial rejection in everything of value that I was to accomplish — starting each of several businesses, teaching at New York University, working at the White House, and getting my books published.

I realize now that in each case I was rejected precisely because I had sought out a higher level of success than my peers. After each rejection and successful re-application, I moved up a step on the ladder of success. While others around me rested on their laurels, waiting patiently for what they “deserved,” I was using each success to shoot for a higher objective, pushing the envelope. With this tactic, it was inevitable that I would be “rejected” with each new challenge.

It wasn’t until I reached my 30s that I learned to enjoy, and even revel in, the application, rejection, and re-application process. Now, when I experience rejection, I smile, for it reassures me that I’m on the right track in seeking a higher level. I’ve also learned to take personal responsibility for rejection rather than blame my prospect—rejection by a qualified prospect means that you, personally, have failed to accurately communicate the potential of the product or service you are trying to sell.

Looking back, I have only one regret. I wish I had learned to enjoy rejection earlier in my career, as I might have taken more time to enjoy the application, rejection, and re-application process that was unfolding.

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