“I did not think I was an atrocious writer,” my friend Ashani texted me a few months ago, “until a prestigious journal told me in two rounds of reviews that my writing is unclear. Argghh!”
The next day, I got an urgent message from a former coaching client that began, “I know you’re busy but…” When I got him on the phone later that afternoon, he said he’d just gotten some discouraging feedback about an article he’d thought was ready to send out for review. By the time we spoke, he was thinking of giving up on the piece entirely.
A few hours later, I talked with a current client, a junior faculty member who was presenting and publishing at a steady rate, but nevertheless felt worried about her tenure file. An article she thought was a perfect fit for a special issue had been rejected and she was pretty disappointed. After talking about it for a while, she finally voiced the fear that lay beneath her disappointment:
“Maybe,” she said slowly, “I’m just not cut out for this job.”
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard this exact phrase from talented, wickedly smart, hard-working scholars: scholars I coach; scholars who are my friends; scholars I meet by happenstance who confess their writing troubles to me when they find out I’m a coach. Colleagues. Grad students. Full professors. People with book contracts and buckets of funding. Some of these people, when I hear them talk or read their work, set me to wailing for the wretched inadequacy of my own ideas. Yet these brilliant, accomplished, dedicated people all have times when they doubt their very right to call themselves scholars.
Whenever I hear this phrase, it always starts me thinking. To say you’re “just not cut out” for academia suggests more than a momentary sense of disappointment that comes from being criticized. It expresses a deeper level of doubt, one that’s worth looking at more closely. What are we really worried about when we say we’re JNCO for this work? If we don’t know what the real fear is behind our words, then we can read all the “How to Handle Rejection” blog posts we want—we’ll still come back time and time again to the idea that we’re not fit for this work.
From talking with colleagues and clients, and reflecting on my own happy experiences with rejection, it seems like there are three primary things we mean when we say we’re JNCO for academia. The first is I don’t know if I can take being constantly rejected. This seems fair to me. When you decide as an undergrad that reading and thinking are your favorite things in life, and all your professors begin urging you toward grad school, rejection typically isn’t part of the conversation. The need to defend your ideas, yes; the importance of hard work, of course. If you’re lucky, someone will mention the discipline and persistence required to keep up with the reading load during coursework.
But nobody mentions the part about wrestling with a manuscript for four months, then waiting twice that long for reviews that, when they arrive, suggest there’s nothing worthwhile about your thinking. Rejection is one of the parts of being a scholar that is a logical extension of the work we do, but still comes as a bit of a surprise when you have to start dealing with it. It hurts your ego. And if you’re like me, it pisses you off, especially if the reviewer is unnecessarily catty. The good thing about this version of JNCO is it’s the easiest to manage. After a while, you learn to depersonalize the situation and move on. It’s sorta like what happens when you amp up your workout. It hurts, but you learn to muscle through.
Then there’s the second thing people mean when they say they’re JNCO for academia: And that’s I’m not smart enough to do this work. Here’s where our thinking starts to get sloppy. This version of JNCO assumes there is a special type of person who is particularly well suited to the work. And to some degree that’s true, right? I mean, if you find books boring, prefer to work with your hands, or really want to spend your days outdoors, it’s possible you’re JNCO for academia.
But that’s not what most people mean when they use the phrase. I think what they mean is, among those of us who think reading and thinking are like, the best things ever, there is a special group who never struggle with their writing. These people merely take a deep breathe in…and then exhale fully formed, theoretically groundbreaking, elegantly structured arguments that flow, unimpeded, from page to published in a matter of weeks. Those are the people who are worthy of being scholars. You are not one of them. So you must be JNCO.
It’s clear when I put it like that how absurd the fear is. But that’s the thing about fears—they don’t have to make sense to have power. The real story is we all have parts of this work that come more easily to us, and parts we have to work our asses off to get done. My husband, for example, reads pretty slowly, but can give a clear, nuanced summary of whatever he’s read immediately afterward. And to my eternal irritation he can draw on it pretty easily while in the midst of debate three months later. I, on the other hand, whip through reading at twice his speed, but have to do extra work—summarizing the document in writing, for example—in order to neatly express the takeaway points. And don’t ask me what I read even a couple weeks afterward. That’s why I took the notes, isn’t it?
So, some things come easily to you and other things don’t. But the idea that having to struggle makes you unfit for scholarly work, well...do I even have to say it? Einstein didn’t speak until he was four. He didn’t read til age seven. And his whole life long, he was a shitty speller—in both his first and second languages. Writing is struggle, make no mistake about it. If you are hoping to spin out ideas with ease, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. But it doesn’t mean you’re not good enough to do this work.
Now, I have a theory that there’s a third thing that JNCO for academia means, something that’s unexpected, and a little hard to admit. But it’s cause for hope. Because the third thing people mean is I can’t believe they can’t see how good my work is.
I could be wrong about this. I’m hoping you’ll leave a comment below, or shoot me an email if you think I’m off base. But I suspect it’s this feeling—deeply buried, fragile, guttering like a low flame—this is the one that causes the most trouble. Getting past I can’t stand being rejected is a matter of practice. And there’s no evidence for I’m not smart enough to do this work. But I can’t believe they can’t see how good my work is? Well, that’s when your self-confidence butts right up against your insecurities—a situation that’s particularly tricky to deal with.
I came face to face with this version of JNCO several years ago when I decided to branch out from academic writing and try my hand at narrative nonfiction. I’d labored over the essay for several years and was full of hope when I sent it off (a hard copy—they didn’t take electronic submissions). Six months later I got it back, with a form letter saying um, thanks, but no thanks. The letter wasn’t even printed, it was photocopied. There was no explanation for the rejection, no suggestions for improvement. The manuscript itself had a check mark on the first page, which I found particularly irritating. Clearly they hadn’t really read it. ‘Cause if they had, they would have seen how awesome it was. Me being a first time essayist and all. Didn’t they say they published “emerging writers”? As I huffed out these complaints to my writing group, they all made affirming noises, except one.
“You think it’s good,” said my friend Helen, with casual, pinpoint accuracy. “That’s why you’re so mad.”
“Nu-uh!” I said, like any grown woman would. “That’s not it. It’s just…what’s with the checkmark anyway? What is this, grade school?”
“It’s ok,” she said, undeterred by my digression. “You can admit it.”
But I couldn’t. At least not right then. Because part of me was really worried (will always worry, is worried every time I send out a blog) that I can’t really write. That I have nothing to say. That each previous success was a fluke. That the last time was the end of a lucky streak, and the truth is about to come out. But when I lifted up that worry and looked underneath it, I saw another feeling swirling around. And it was exactly the one Helen had accused me of. The essay was good and I knew it. Not perfect, but good. It wasn’t just the sting of rejection that bothered me. It was the gap between my own assessment of my work, and someone else’s.
Of the three possible things that JNCO might mean, this is the only one worth your attention. Because this is the one that requires you to choose between your own vision of your work, and someone else’s. There will always, always be things that you could do to make your work better. And it’s wise to consider the reflections of others when deciding whether or how to improve it. But at root, you have to believe in your own capacity to do good work. So when someone says you didn’t make the cut, the first thing you have to do—even before you read the reviews, or start your revisions—is settle back into that faith you have in yourself and your ideas.
You can’t do that if you use the phrase “I’m just not cut out for this work.” That phrase is worthless. It’s meaningless. It plunges you into despair, and worse—it obscures what you’re really thinking and feeling. Next time you get a rejection, try not to go there. Try instead to, first, create some distance. Then before you jump into the reviews, spend some time figuring out your true feelings. What you really believe when you’re not feeling the sting of criticism. I think if you do, you’ll encounter your own guttering flame, a tiny voice saying you have something valuable to say.
Pay attention to that voice, no matter how small. It’s the only one worth listening to.
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Michelle Boyd. Writer, Scholar, Coach