“If you never get rejected, then it means you’re never trying anything that really pushes you in a way that you’ll grow.” Zibby is joined by Jessica Bacal, author of The Rejection That Changed My Life: 25+ Powerful Women on Being Let Down, Turning It Around, and Burning It Up at Work, as well as two of the book’s contributors, Chelsea Kline and Polly Rodriguez. The four talk about what they’ve learned from their individual rejections and offer tips on how we can all begin to approach rejection as a necessary step for growth.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, everybody. I have a full house here to discuss The Rejection That Changed My Life by Jessica Bacal, 25+ Powerful Women on Being Let Down, Turning It Around, and Burning It Up at Work. Thank you all for joining.

Jessica Bacal: Thanks for having us.

Zibby: I have Jessica Bacal, the author and compiler, perhaps, of this whole book; Chelsea Kline; and Polly Rodriguez. I would love for you guys to discuss how you got involved with this project and what rejection you shared. Why don’t I actually start with Chelsea and Polly? Then I’ll go on to Jessica and find out about the whole project in and of itself.

Chelsea Kline: You want me to start?

Zibby: I want you to start.

Chelsea: I’m so excited to be here. It’s really nice to meet you, Zibby. My name is Chelsea Kline. I know Jess from living in the same town in Northampton. We have a connection through Smith College and just being women in the same town and being interested in similar things. The story that I shared was about how I ran for state senate and didn’t win and how the value of putting oneself out there and not getting what one wants is pretty tremendous. I think a lot of people think, what if I don’t get the thing that I want? I would be so mortified. I’d be so embarrassed. I did that, and I’m still standing. It was really powerful for me to be able to share that story in Jess’s book and to find so much comradery as I read this book. I’m not alone. It’s really heartening. That book is so comforting. It’s so powerful. I really think it’s actually revolutionary.

Zibby: I agree. All the sections on different women, everybody has their lessons learned at the end and things that you can take away, all of which are completely actionable and amazing. What was one of yours? What’s your favorite one that you shared, do you even remember, in the book?

Chelsea: Are you asking me?

Zibby: I’m asking you. Sorry, I know this is tricky with multiple people.

Chelsea: My favorite one, honestly, I’m really starstruck that Polly Rodriguez is here, but I’m also really smitten with Loretta Ross. There’s so many stories in here that were people that I admire and people that I knew about already that I was really excited about. Hearing the flipside or the warts and all or the real truth behind their success, it was just so comforting and so calming. Oh, we’re all human. I really think that there’s these traditional models of ambition, which is, don’t let anyone see you sweat. This book is really turning all of that on its ear because we’re saying, we are sweating. Breaking down barriers and being ambitious is really sweaty work when you’re a woman, especially if you’re a woman of color, you’re from a marginalized background. It’s really powerful to say that this is hard. I’m falling down. I’m dusted up. I scraped my knees. I’m getting up, and I’m doing it anyway. That’s what I mean. This book is revolutionary and so powerful so important because we’re breaking barriers by just talking about these things. I’m so grateful to Jess for writing this.

Jessica: Thanks, Chelsea.

Zibby: Jess, I found it so interesting in your introduction how some people wouldn’t even admit to their mistakes, and for your last book too. They didn’t even want to go there. They were like, I don’t want to admit.

Jessica: There was someone I talked to on the phone. She was considering being interviewed for the book. She said, “I really don’t like the word rejection. Are you sure you’re going to have rejection in the title?” I was like, “Yeah, I am. I’m going to have rejection in the title.”

Zibby: By the way, you totally inspired me. I think it’s because I’ve been reading this book now to prep for today. I just launched this new podcast called “Moms Don’t Have Time to Have Sex.” I got it all ready to go. Then I got this email from Apple Podcasts. It was rejected. I was like, oh, my gosh, it was rejected by Apple Podcasts. At first, I start freaking out. I was like, forget my podcast launch. Just forget it, even though it’s up on other channels. Then I was like, wait a minute, this could be the rejection that changed my life. This is an opportunity to do better with iHeartRadio. Now I can see the flipside of it. Then I was going to hide it. Instead, now in all the materials, I’m like, “Not on Apple. I was rejected.” That was all you. It was all this book and the timing of it and everything.

Jessica: I really appreciate that. I love that. I do think that that kind of modeling is so useful for other people. That you’re willing to put that out there I think is great.

Zibby: Thank you. See, you’re already changing lives. Just one reader, and here we go. Okay, Polly, would you mind introducing yourself and sharing what you contributed to the book?

Polly Rodriguez: Absolutely. I’m Polly Rodriguez. I’m the CEO and cofounder of Unbound, which, speaking of sexuality, is a sexual wellness company with the goal of taking an entire category of products, spanning vibrators, lubricants, and accessories as well as content that is educational but also relatable, mainstream through affordable pricing and innovative design. Being vulnerable and being open about the realities of what it takes to get to where you are is something I’m super passionate about. When I was first starting the business, I was in debt. I felt like I was failing every day. It was a really isolating experience. Being transparent about how hard that is with other female founders on a more intimate scale was really empowering for me, which I think is a word that is often abused. It was just something that I felt so much less alone when I realized that it was difficult for everyone, not just me. I was really excited by the book. I’ve loved reading it. I think it goes back to just acknowledging that it’s not super easy for anyone. Everyone is facing battles and struggles. You just don’t know what the other person’s going through until you read a book like this.

Zibby: It’s almost like you have to go through these rejections. Yet people feel like you’re not supposed to take these little detours, but it’s not even a detour. You have to get rejected in terms of, if somebody didn’t have any rejections their whole career, that would be nuts. I bet they wouldn’t have as rich an understanding or even an appreciation for where they’ve gotten to after all that. Back to Jess finally as we circle around here, tell me about starting this book. Tell me about your experience at Smith and trying to start your own program and sort of failing and then your reconsideration of if you even really wanted it. Tell me about that whole thing and how this book came to be.

Jessica: At Smith, where I’ve worked for over a dozen years, there was a reorganization. In the process of reorganization, I applied for a bigger job at the college. Here’s an anecdote to show you how nervous I was. I hired a speaking coach to coach me on my job talk. On this one day that I practiced my job talk with her, I also drove back to campus where I’d assembled all these colleagues to also listen to me give a job talk. I parked my car. I did that. Then I went to work. When I came back to car at the end of the day, I’d left my motor running for six hours. I was just so anxious and distracted. Then I didn’t get the job. It was humiliating because I had to then go tell that speaking coach and those colleagues I’d assembled and all the people who wrote references for me and people who knew me and had interviewed me. I was humiliated, but even as I was learning that I hadn’t gotten this job, I felt this little sense of relief. I was like, what is that about? Maybe I actually didn’t want this job. That experience made me wonder if rejection was maybe more complex than we think of it as being. I wondered if it would be interesting to gather women’s stories about rejection. I was interested in women in part because Smith is a historically women’s college, I work with young women, and in part because I think women are socialized to be approval seeking. It was interesting to me to talk to people about what happened when they hadn’t gotten that approval. It was an amazing opportunity to get to talk to powerful people like Chelsea and Polly and to then, after accumulating all these interviews, to think about, what are the lessons that are emerging?

With Polly, for example, she was able to use rejection as data. I think you’d agree with this, Polly. She pitched her company, Unbound, at — she applied to these large pitch competitions in big cities at first. It wasn’t working out because people, mostly men, didn’t really understand her product. She took that data that maybe the big competitions aren’t going to work out and she went to smaller cities and smaller competitions. That’s where she started to get her funding. Another important lesson from the book is that rejection tolerance is a muscle. I think Chelsea’s story really demonstrates this. Chelsea, she put herself out there as someone who’d never run for office. She had to go door to door, introduce herself, and just deal with, some people weren’t interested. Some people in our town weren’t going to vote for her. She pushed through. I think you say in your story, Chelsea, someone had told you at the end of it, okay, you’re made of steel. You could walk through fire now. You’ve really done it. I do think that there’s a strength that comes from experiencing the small rejections that you have to experience on a campaign, but then the larger rejection that you experienced after actually getting a ton of voter support but not winning the election.

Zibby: This is like when my — I had twins. This is a million years ago now. When they would cry uncontrollably, I would always feel like I was doing something wrong. The doctor was like, “No, no, it’s okay because when they’re crying like this, they’re building up their lungs. You’re making them into better people.” This might have been completely not true, by the way. Now this I say this out loud having not thought about it for fourteen years, it was probably a lie. In other words, there’s always some sort of silver lining to it. You’re building up something as you’re failing something else. Polly and Chelsea in particular, after you got over those pitfalls or failures, how did you keep going? Polly, what made you not say, well, I was rejected at this conference, forget it, I guess I had a bad idea? How did you pick yourself up, Chelsea? What happens after?

Polly: We went out to raise a seed round of funding. You read all these stories in the press of, I had this idea. I wrote it down on a cocktail napkin. Then all of a sudden, VCs were just fighting over giving me money. Because that wasn’t my experience, it forced me to really focus on the business and figure out, what part of this feedback is valid that I should incorporate and really consider? It taught me how to just be really honestly critical and not take things so personally. I was able to say, okay, that feedback is valid and I should probably think about how to incorporate and change it, versus, that is just someone that’s afraid of what we do and the stigma. Me personally, I hadn’t found it in myself. Starting a business in sexuality — I grew up in the Midwest. My parents were very taken aback when I told them that this is what I wanted to do. A lot of the failure that was happening was reflective of stuff that I hadn’t worked through internally. For me, it taught me how to look at things more objectively and not take them so personally. Then on the other side of that, it was about building community and being around other women who are going through something similar so that you didn’t feel like it was just you going through that on your own. It’s tough. It’s not perfect. It’s definitely a linear line where point B is higher than point A, but it’s got a curve that goes up and down every day. I try to remember that where I feel on that curve will change day to day. Ultimately, it’s a net-positive movement, if that makes sense.

Zibby: That does make sense. I love that. How about you, Chelsea? How did you pick yourself up?

Chelsea: For me, I had been in spaces where I had helped encourage other women to run for office. I had been really involved in that. Part of it for me was about really walking my walk. Then once I actually ran, I had so much deeper of a perspective on what it actually means to run for office and really understanding what a tremendous privilege it is to run for office. It felt really important to me to translate my failure or my lack of winning, whatever you want to call it, into something positive to help other people run, using what I had learned to really talk about the privilege that you need to be able to run for office and also the nuts and bolts. Now I feel this tremendous responsibility to help other women run for office and to share my story and to talk about the fact that I ran by the skin of my teeth. I had to call everyone I knew and ask them for five bucks to help me run. I wasn’t the traditional candidate. I really felt like my story was really important and that I could help other women. That, to me, just shifted everything.

If can I help somebody demystify the process, if I can really explain the nuts and bolts, if I can be a resource for someone, then it makes it all worth it. I’m not just sitting back going, oh, you should run, you should run. I’m saying, hey, I did it. It was really, really hard and also really worth it. I’m really glad I did it. It completely kicked my butt. Let me help you do it too. The more that we can normalize running and not winning, the more that we normalize jumping into campaigns even if you’re not perfect and you don’t have all the right experience, then I think the more that we’re going to be working for actual equality. Those are the most important things to me. With that being said, the more that I can share my story, I think the more that I can help people. I’m actually working really hard to do that in a more formal way and launching my own podcast that talks about women running for office and all those things. This has really become part of my career trajectory and part of my DNA. It’s okay to fall down. We all do it sometimes.

Zibby: What’s your podcast called?

Chelsea: It’s called “Galvanized.” It’s interviews with women who have run for office, women who have won and not won, and women who have been campaign managers, and really working for, how do we get more women to run? It has a real strong educational push to it.

Zibby: I just chatted with a woman named Julie Menin here on the Upper East Side of New York. She’s running now. She’s never run for office before. I feel like I should put you in touch. She has four kids. She’s amazing. She’s running for controller or something. It’s not the mayor. She’s like, “No, I’m not doing the mayor race, but this is what I think I can do.” She was impressive. I should put you in touch.

Chelsea: Yes, please.

Zibby: She could use you, for sure. Also, I just interviewed recently, Mark Shriver who wrote 10 Hidden Heroes. He had lost a race also after being in the Maryland State Legislature for two decades. He was talking about that as one of his most profound moments in life, was getting over that rejection. It was a very, very close race. He couldn’t believe it the next morning. He went to brunch with his son and his wife and was just feeling so defeated and everything. I guess they had been singing the song “It’s a Beautiful Day” by U2. It was that time of life. They walked out of this diner. His son jumped in front of him when he was all downcast and everything and just said, “Dad, it’s a beautiful day.” He was like, “You’re right.” Literally, he starts crying telling me. He’s like, “That’s what it’s about.” I feel like it’s whatever you can use in your toolbox to remember what’s important and that these are temporary moments. They are just little dots on the whole timeline of life. They’re not the end of any sort of timeline. Anyway, you all know this. I don’t know why I’m summarizing it.

Chelsea: I’m glad that you bring that up, though, because I feel like having your kids witness those sort of ups and downs that you mention, I think that’s so incredibly poignant. Actually, for my kids, I think that was the most painful part of my running, was seeing my kids’ reactions to it. I was a teen mom, so I have a twentysomething kid. She was really active in my campaign. I have a thirteen-year-old. They were so heartbroken that I didn’t win. That really, really hurt me. It also felt like such a great thing to model for my kids. We do the best we can. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. We still have to carry on. I really felt like I was like, I am soldiering on, everyone. I am saying the things I’m supposed to say. I was also like, this hurts. This is sad. That’s human. It was a lot, but it was good.

Jessica: I think it’s a great lesson for kids. I think it’s amazing that they were able to witness that and see you get through it.

Zibby: Jess, what other pieces of — you have so many takeaways. You book is chock-full of them. I really liked that the difference between how you handle it is how you rebound, essentially. It’s not just the rejection or how big the rejection. It’s the ability to pick yourself up and keep going, the resilience or grit or whatever you want to call that. Do you think some people just have that more than other people, that ability? Are you born with the ability to kind of bounce off the ground quicker than others? You think it’s a skill that we all have to acquire? What do you think?

Jessica: I think some people might be naturally more resilient than others. I definitely think it’s something we can practice and acquire. Actually, one of my favorite moments in the process of developing this book was interviewing Angela Duckworth who is the seminal researcher on grit. She is a psychologist at University of Pennsylvania. I loved hearing her say that when she gets rejected or when she’s struggling, she tells everyone in her lab. She’s talking about it all the time. She said something like, “More tears have gone into my husband’s shirt collar than you could imagine.” Just knowing that the researcher on grit also cries when she gets rejected, that was very comforting to me. I do think that it’s not that we don’t feel badly when we’re rejected. I think it’s okay. A lot of women in the book talked about the importance of feeling your feelings. Then you can do these other things like taking the long view, seeing rejection as data. Polly talked about not taking things so personally, but having this curiosity about the rejection, viewing it with a little more distance, and building these muscles, modeling for other people that rejection is part of life. You can move on. I also learned that rejection, researchers are finding it sparks creativity. It can spark creativity. That was encouraging too.

Zibby: I loved, by the way, when you were describing Angela Duckworth, that you were like, oh, and by the way, she’s really funny. You just wouldn’t know. I love when you just get to know. In my mind, she’s this legendary advice guru and founder of this psychological movement. You’re like, no, no, actually, she’s hilarious.

Jessica: She’s so formidable seeming, but she was very personable.

Zibby: Also, Alysia Reiner, who is actually in my book group, my Zibby’s Virtual Book Group, I got to know her in the pandemic. Now she comes most weeks. She’s talked to my husband about different projects. Anyway, that whole thing too because as actresses, or actors, I should say, excuse me, they face rejection constantly. She had to get involved in other things like producing and directing or all these other pivots that people have to do. How did you connect with everybody in the book?

Jessica: Some people were people I know like Chelsea. Then there were a couple of other Smith alumni. A nice thing about getting older is you know these young people. My former assistant at Smith, Ally, she was my assistant in my office, she went off and became a rockstar. She’s the bassist for Potty Mouth. She lives in LA. I was like, “Ally, can I interview you?” Some people were people like that who I knew. Some people were people I just found online who seemed interesting. I just googled and cold-emailed. Polly is an example of that. I emailed her office and asked if she might be willing based on some things I’d read online, panels she’d been on, things she’d written. She was willing to talk. Then there were definitely a lot of no’s as well.

Zibby: You could write a whole book about the rejection of the women rejecting you for being in the book. That’ll be part two. What about men?

Jessica: Yes, what about them?

Zibby: I’m just asking, what about their experience of rejection? I’m thinking about my sons and what they’re going to have face too.

Jessica: I do think that this is a book for everyone. With my first book, which was about mistakes, one of the first times I had people read it, I gave some sections to students from Amherst College and Smith and UMass. We were in a workshop together I was leading. The men, the young male students, responded really well. They found it really inspiring and helpful. I definitely think that anyone could read this book. I was more interested in interviewing women because it was women’s stories that had inspired me personally. Elizabeth Bell, who’s in the book, is someone I knew in my own life. She was rejected from medical school seventeen times. That was inspiring to me. When I think about men and women and rejection, there’s a myth that women are less likely to take risks than men. I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s equal. There was a big meta-analysis that came out of Boston University a couple of years ago. This researcher looked at all of these studies on women and risk-taking and found that there’s actually a ninety-five percent overlap in men and women and risk-taking. Those differences get magnified because that’s what catches the attention of journals when people send things out to publish. I do think women are more ruminative. We’re more likely to turn things over and over in our minds and feel badly and wonder, what could we do differently? That’s another reason why I think this book might be especially useful for women.

Zibby: I have to say, I loved the way you wrote it. It was like talking to a friend. I loved it. I felt like I knew you before — you and your dogs. How you introduced, also, every chapter instead of just putting the story out there, I don’t know if that was a conscious decision in the writing process or not, but I loved that. I produce these anthologies occasionally. I’m like, oh, I should do that. I should put a little intro paragraph because it gives everything such a better context. Anyway, I just loved how you did that.

Jessica: Thank you.

Zibby: And the exercises in the back too, by the way. Those were so huge. Now I have to go back and sit and do some of them.

Jessica: Those are based on activities that I’ve done with my students at Smith over many years. They include poems we’ve used. I actually got in touch with these poets to ask, “Can I put your poems in the book?” It was so wonderful because I was able to tell them, “I’ve been using your poems as prompts with students for years.” Those were really cool conversations. There’s one exercise that invites people to write about themselves in a third person. That’s useful. That’s one way of getting some distance from a rejection, for example.

Zibby: One thing when I was first starting to — I went to this writing class. This is years and years ago. Susan Shapiro, who ended up being on my podcast, said you can’t take it personally when you get rejections for pitching articles. You’re going to get rejections. Assume you’re going to get ten. Get a spreadsheet going. Put a line in. As soon as the first rejection comes in, great, you’ve started filling up your chart. Just get it ready and send it out again. It’s such a great mentality. You shouldn’t even think about it. Okay, this race is over. Done. This VC passed, great. I’m going to the next one on my list. I’m not even going to stop to cry. It doesn’t mean anything. That wasn’t the right thing. I think it’s a good approach to many tasks in life.

Jessica: Having a system like that, it provides almost a structure to have the kind of remove that you need to persevere through something like sending out articles.

Zibby: What parting advice would all of you have even about writing this book, by the way, Jessica, and writing books in general and the fact that you went back to pursue the PhD after getting rejected, all these things? What would your parting advice be to either aspiring authors or people just who have been knocked down and are struggling to get back up again? Now I should put that song. Do you know what I’m talking about? “I get –“

Jessica: — Yeah.

Zibby: All right, I’ll spare you.

Jessica: “I get knocked down.”

Zibby: You should make a playlist for the book.

Jessica: I know.

Zibby: You should do that, Spotify playlist. So what would your advice be, all three of you? Jessica, you go first.

Jessica: I’ll give advice for writing. I have this one friend who’s a writer. I love her books. She’s a novelist. Her novel is The Optimistic Decade. It’s a great novel. Sometimes I feel like I wouldn’t even be writing if it weren’t for her. I’m doing this to get her approval. I know it’s not really true, but it’s been so helpful to have her encouragement, to have her read my writing, to just talk about writing with her. I would say if you have one writer friend, that can really help you.

Zibby: Love it. I think that having the community in the times of rejection are also so important. It’s a multi-functioned friend. You need that crash pad, if you will. All right, Chelsea.

Chelsea: I think using our failures and our rejections as a way to help other people sort of takes the sting out of it. Back to your earlier question about, what about men? This work really transcends gender because it’s about making ambition and making our successes more human and more real and more collaborative. It’s about sharing knowledge. That can help everybody. That can make our professional workplaces and our communities more humane and more inclusive and kinder.

Zibby: Love it. Polly, how about you?

Polly: I would just say the thing I’ve learned through startups and endless rejection is that if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. It’s hard for a reason. I’ve learned this only over time. If you feel like you’re failing every day, it means you’re doing something that’s really difficult. It doesn’t feel that way. For me, the moment I feel safe and comfortable, I’m like, oh, I’m not growing anymore. The most helpful thing for me has just been to have the context of, if you are being rejected, it means you’re doing something that’s difficult and worthwhile. If you never get rejected, then it means you’re never trying anything that really pushes you in a way that you’ll grow. I look at rejection as a good thing.

Jessica: I love that, Polly. If we’re not being rejected, then we’re just stagnant. That’s awesome.

Polly: Then you get to go back and win. I was single for six or seven years when I first moved to New York. I remember dating was very similar. I’d go on all these dates and get rejection all the time. I finally started going into the mindset of, well, either it’ll be a good date or a good story, and just looking at it from that perspective of either it’ll turn out the way I want or I’ll get a badge of honor for muddling through it.

Zibby: Turning it all into a learning opportunity, as the preschool teachers might say. I love that. This has been so fun. Chelsea, I’m going to put you in touch with Julie. Polly, I would love to talk to you about my new podcast which I launched today, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Have Sex.” If there’s something maybe we could do together, that would be really fun.

Jessica: I can’t believe Apple rejected it, Zibby. That’s so crazy to me.

Zibby: Right? It’s very tame. It’s just for normal moms who have secret questions. It’s not very racy or anything. Who knows? We’ll see. Jessica, if you do another book about rejections, I have a thousand I could share, like everybody else. I’ll have to get in line. It was so nice to meet you all. Congratulations. I really loved the book. It’s so great and the perfect gift when anybody’s feeling down too. Thanks for the bow. That saves me wrapping paper. That’s perfect. It was great to meet you all. Have a great day.

Everyone: Bye, Zibby. Thank you.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.



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