Bruce Springsteen’s first agent actually fired him by simply not returning his phone calls. Oprah Winfrey was let go from one of her first jobs in TV when the producer told her she was “unfit for television.” Before his work started selling, Claude Monet lived the better part of 10 years in abject poverty while his painting was consistently ridiculed by critics as “formless, unfinished, and ugly.” Nearly every individual who has sought to do meaningful work has at one point faced rejection at the hand of gatekeepers.
Gatekeepers aren’t mean or inherently evil. They are simply men and women appointed to sit in a position of judgment, a position of choosing outcomes for other people. Most of all though, they are human and capable of misjudgment. In some cases, the misjudgment can be to famous effect.
Warren Buffett was denied to Harvard Business School. Tom Hanks was denied by Villanova; Tina Fey was denied by Princeton.
Gatekeepers in admissions have long been the center of our collective fascination. In 2002, Jacques Steinberg wrote The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College; many consider this book to be one of the best and most popular insider books on the admissions process at highly selective universities. We are taught as a culture to pay attention to the interests and proclivities of gatekeepers. If we pass their tests, good things will happen; if we don’t, nothing good happens.
Except it isn’t at all true. The meaningful work and efforts we do often does not make sense to the gatekeeper, who is mostly looking for your fit within a rubric that projects success. Because meaningful work isn’t linear and clean, it’s messy - characterized by periods of clarity interspersed with long stretches of unrest and growth.
Being picked is nice. Of course it is. But that isn’t the goal. The goal is honing your craft in becoming the person you were designed to be. It is the practice of repeatedly showing up and caring about the work.