Rejection, In Four Parts

How rejection shapes the way we think, for good and bad—and if we let it, we take important lessons from it. (Tylenol helps in this process, we hear.)

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: Everyone, everywhere, has to deal with some kind of rejection. It’s what we’re taught about culture. It’s all-American. It’s something we’re all used to. Rejection can be between two people. It can be between thousands of people all at once. But ultimately, some kinds of rejection are more public than others. Currently, Elon Musk is dealing with rejection. He was told by nearly all of his remaining employees at Twitter that they did not want to “be extremely hardcore” after he gave them an ultimatum, that they would rather not be “part of the new Twitter,” and would instead take severance than stay at a job that would never appreciate them more than they would appreciate it. If you ask me, leaving the world’s richest man high and dry with no job lined up is pretty hardcore. But I digress. For Today’s Tedium, I want to share a four-parter on rejection. I have done similar pieces about repetition, randomness, and reflection, and the parts will each be completed MidRange-style, meaning that each part will have a strict 30-minute limit. Anyway, I hope you don’t reject this. — Ernie @ Tedium

Today’s GIF comes from the most criminally underrated of Netflix shows, a show I definitely do not reject, Aunty Donna’s Big ’Ol House of Fun. It is my absolute favorite and I encourage you to seek it out if you have not already.

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No Sign Surrounded By Tree

(Jakayla Toney/Unsplash)

Why rejection sticks with us

Maybe Elon Musk is not showing it right now, but rejection is a tough pill to swallow. (More on pills in a minute.)

It takes a lot of different forms, from psychological to physical. It is an emotional wound, and we must carry it with us. And in many ways, rejection is something that is passed on to other people. One big rejection leads to a ripple effect of rejections. When a client rejects you, suddenly everyone in your organization has to switch gears to account for that departure, which means lots of smaller rejections.

In many ways, the purchase of Twitter reflects a rejection of the team by the former owners, and the employees’ departure from Twitter reflects a rejection of the cultural changes that have already been implemented.

But there are other kinds of rejection that occur. Romantic rejection is a good one—maybe you put yourself on the line in a big way, and it didn’t work out. Maybe you applied to a big college, or took a swing at an ambitious new opportunity, only for the effort to fall flat in the end.

As Mark Leary, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Duke University once put it, “People have realized just how much our concern with social acceptance spreads its fingers into almost everything we do.”

And I think in many ways, that’s the central tension of the modern world, and one could more broadly argue, capitalism. The definition of success in the modern day means that someone else loses out on an opportunity, and while there are plenty of opportunities out there to win your little piece of the pie, it ultimately creates a society where differences and nuances always win out, but success does not.

But in many ways, rejection offers us a way to build productively from that old thing and find a new thing. In the 2015 paper Unpacking Emotion Differentiation: Transforming Unpleasant Experience by Perceiving Distinctions in Negativity, written by researchers at George Mason University and Northeastern University, one strategy to help wean away from the negative feelings of rejection is to put it into a broader context, so as not to make the rejection the central focus.

“We speculate that when distressing feelings and bodily sensations arise, instead of letting these experiences dominate attention or dictate how to behave, high differentiators are better able to distance themselves (a concept referred to as defusion or self-distancing),” authors Todd B. Kashdan, Lisa Feldman Barrett, and Patrick E. McKnight wrote. “With this psychological distance, there is greater opportunity to direct effortful behavior toward personally valued strivings or goals.”

If rejection is your everything, you will take on bad habits and make it the center of your whole being. But if you right-size it within the context of a variety of emotional feelings, eventually you’ll find the will to move past it all. You shouldn’t avoid the feeling of rejection—but you should make sure it is not taking an outsized space in your thinking.

Likewise, one rejection shouldn’t be enough to give up. Put in the effort, and the work, and eventually, someone will see it for what it is. After all, that’s what Stephen King did. Carrie, his first big book, was rejected by 30 publishers, but his wife believed in the material and encouraged him to keep trying, and he found resilience as a result, and one day it was selected and became the opening salvo in one of the most important literary careers of the 20th century.

Right size rejection in your life—but by the same token, learn to accept it. If millions of people are telling you you’re ruining their experience, accept the feedback; don’t pretend it doesn’t exist.

All wounds heal. Even wounds to the ego.

Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes

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Digg HQ Sign

(Scott Beale/Flickr)

Twitter, Digg, and the power of rejection in online culture

It’s not a new lesson nor a complex one, but the truth is, if you’re sick of a social network for any reason, the easiest way to make it a former part of your life is to just leave.

I don’t think we were ready to leave Twitter, to be clear, but I think now that so much is shifting with the culture of that social network, odds are that it’s the step a lot of us are likely going to take.

Our tendency to leave social networks where we once lived is a reflection of the power of consumer choice, and it’s also the thing a given social network works hardest to stop. That’s why there’s always design changes, reshaping of content, and a rethink of how the algorithm works on a given site. They want to stay one step ahead of their users so they don’t feel the desire to leave.

But, now that we’ve had a couple of decades with social media, with the first modern social site, Friendster, celebrating its 20th anniversary of its launch in March, we now have enough of a baseline to understand the nature of online culture to understand why people give up on platforms.

Most common are the platforms that simply just become less exciting over time, or tend to stay static. These platforms—think Friendster, LiveJournal, or MySpace—essentially faded from view in their primary markets because they didn’t evolve quickly enough, and that made them less sticky for end users. Because they were distinctly marketed as commercial platforms, that meant that they needed to adapt to the needs of the industry. It is hard to recapture the momentum

Increasingly common are the platforms we age out of. Facebook is a good example of this; while it remains hugely popular among people over the age of 25, is very much not the case for those under that age group. It is on the path to a long, gradual fade, where the rejection will happen steadily unless the network can do something to right the path … which the metaverse is definitely not doing.

Digg Front Page Reddit Links

At one point, the Digg redesign proved so unpopular that the most popular links were all links to Reddit threads. (Know Your Meme)

Less common, however, are the platforms that basically blow out overnight. We’ve only had a couple of those—Digg, which famously flamed out after an unwanted redesign in 2010, and Twitter, which we’ve been witnessing the demise of in real time since the end of October. (Less pronounced, and as a result likely to have some room to bounce back, is Tumblr, whose explicit content ban in 2018, while controversial, came at the tail end of an extended demise, which made the impact of the blowout smaller and more contained. A change in leadership will help to salvage this to some degree.)

The key thing in each of these cases is that the owners of the site clearly went in a direction that was at odds with a significant number of users, meaning that engagement had seen a slide as a result.

I think it’s safe to say we weren’t done with Digg, just like we aren’t done with Twitter, which is why we’re looking for alternatives. Digg had an obvious one, Reddit, and many are convinced that Mastodon will play a similar role in the case of Twitter. (And if not Mastodon, something with a similar party-line value, like Discord.)

But in all of these cases, rejection basically decided the day. While Digg was eventually revamped as a pretty good news aggregation platform, it lost the social elements that made it relevant to most of its original user base, and that later revamp was the result of a 2012 sale that saw the site sell for half a million dollars.

Twitter is likely far more valuable than that even now, but with most of its staff removed and major security issues being left unmonitored, it’s likely that it will see a quick fadeout as well. (Maybe Elon will pull a miracle out of his Cybertruck, but consider me unconvinced.)

But just as Twitter’s employees were empowered to reject the company that failed to respect them, so too are the users empowered to leave and go somewhere else if the experience falls beneath a certain level.

You have the power to reject—and the internet has used that collective power before. You just need to use it.

Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes

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Tylenol Acetaminophen Pills

(Mike Mozart/Flickr)

Elon Musk should take Tylenol to help ease his sense of rejection

So, we’ve talked about social media, and we’ve talked about the fact that everyone should face some kind of rejection in their lives with grace, even Elon. Now, let’s get weird.

This being Tedium, we have to talk about the strangest examples of a given topic we can find, and we have the perfect study for this very topic. In 2019, an article in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine made the case that the pain of rejection could actually be treated through the use of a key over-the-counter medication—that medication being, of course, Tylenol (or its generic name, acetaminophen).

The title of the paper is perhaps one of the greatest titles of an academic papers you’ve ever seen: Alleviating Social Pain: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial of Forgiveness and Acetaminophen. And the results were utterly fascinating. The paper was based on (as the name suggests) a double-blind study of 42 young adults, given different types of medical treatments, including placebos, to better understand the ways people reacted to being tested.

Yes, it’s a small sample size, albeit controlled, but the hypothesis is fascinating.

“If forgiveness reduces social pain through psychological processes and acetaminophen through neurochemical pathways, one possibility is that the greatest reductions in social pain over time may be evident for individuals taking acetaminophen who also exhibit positive psychological characteristics, such as being highly forgiving,” the paper—written by researchers at UCLA, UC Davis, and Luther College—explained.

(One point in the research that should be heeded: the rejection needs to come with a hint of forgiveness to truly have an effect.)

While that may not necessarily be enough to convince people to take Tylenol after a spell of rejection, it does tie into a broader point often hinted at by outside researchers—a key indicator of depression is the introduction of rejection into a person’s life, which means that it still matters as a part of this discussion.

“Experiencing a socially painful life event, like a relationship breakup, is one of the strongest predictors of developing depression in adolescence and adulthood,” the paper’s lead author, UCLA’s George Slavich, Ph.D., told MedicalNewsToday. “Social pain is also associated with decreased cognitive functioning and increased aggression and engagement in self-defeating behaviors, like excessive risk-taking and procrastination.”

So, I guess, if you’re going through a bad breakup, grab a thing of Tylenol and hunker down. It might just help.

Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes

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Retail Shelves

(walmart3/Flickr)

How factory seconds helped lead to a complete rethinking of retail

So, we’ve added a little weirdness into our discussion about rejection. Now let’s go off the rails and take the discussion into an extremely left-field direction.

And that direction is, simply, one that only exists because perfection is so unobtainable. See, both historically and in the modern day, factories have been forced to figure out what, exactly, to do with their slightly off-kilter or imperfect items. These not-good-enough pieces became known as factory rejects, or perhaps their better-known term, factory seconds.

These products created something of a challenge from a manufacturing standpoint, because they often were in undesirable sizes or shapes or had some sort of issue that might not be obvious to the naked eye but fails to live up to some product requirements that the factory was given by their client. But you don’t just want to throw this stuff out into the trash, if you could avoid it. After all, it’s wasteful.

And this is where the retail sector came into play, which saw potential in selling these imperfect products anyway in a format that encouraged their imperfections. As explained in the 1962 publication Revolution in Retailing, which highlighted the how these factory seconds shaped discount shopping:

Discounting had its beginning in the late 1940′s when small dealers began selling name brand appliances at off-list prices. The more successful of these dealers developed into formidable chains of stores and took on other lines of merchandise.

At the same time, the factory outlet store dealing in clothing and soft lines came on the scene. The factory outlet store originally was located in a manufacturing facility and served as a retail outlet for factory seconds. With the passage of time, however, these factory outlets began carrying merchandise other than that produced by the factory. Eventually these stores were moved to separate locations devoted entirely to retail selling. In the beginning such stores were often established in abandoned textile mills (particularly in the New England area) or in converted factories or warehouses.

Finding success in this new form of low-overhead selling, the operators began constructing specially designed buildings, adding more lines of merchandise and bringing in hard goods. Some stores established grocery departments and pioneered in “one-stop shopping.”

The year 1962 is important, because it’s the year three of the most important retailers in history all got their start in their most notable forms—Kmart, Walmart, and Target. These factory seconds, helped to reshape discount stores, but at the same time, their success helped to reset the entire retail model to something that made more sense for the average consumer.

“They all come into being in 1962 because it’s a moment when retailers are beginning to realize the limit of their retail models in that exact moment,” economic historian Louis Hyman explained on an episode of the BackStory podcast. “And so you have different kinds of stores, department stores, five and dimes, trying to reinvent themselves into a new form and take advantage of these lower prices.”

In many ways, this approach has come to shape everything we know about retail outlets today. Maybe we don’t buy factory seconds from Walmart, but it did encourage an emphasis on low prices that led to changes in the manufacturing process away from legacy models. Factory outlets? Kind of born from this basic idea that people want to buy cheaper goods from specific brands. Discount retailers that actually specialize in selling rejects or off-kilter items, like TJ Maxx and Marshalls? They gained their superpowers from this shift in the retail market away from perfection.

In a world that hands us rejection, we adapt. (Unless those that accept the rejected refuse you, as TJ Maxx did when it decided to refuse Kanye West’s shoes and apparel lines.)

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I think the hidden success story that is the factory second really shows the way that, when exposed to rejection as a culture, we adapt to the signals that the broader world is sharing with us.

And it’s not just limited to shirts with tags that are an inch off or toys with a misprint on the packaging. It’s also a factor of how we will reshape ourselves if we allow ourselves to listen to the signs that the broader universe is giving us.

If we fail a test, the right thing for us to do, given that clear signal, is to study harder for the next one. Sometimes the test is wrong, and we must reject it. Sometimes we’re wrong, and we must listen to the test.

But the important thing about rejection is that it gives us an opportunity to learn, to take a second stab at reshaping our thinking. But if we ignore the lesson, we need to have a clear reason for doing so.

After all, the Tylenol doesn’t work unless we’re in a forgiving mood.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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