My husband and I just made a pitstop in Farmville, VA to visit our old stomping grounds of Longwood University. While they may not have a football team, and you can stand on one end of campus and see the other end, it was an amazing school and experience that shaped us both into who we are today. As we walked by the business school, I was reminded of a pivotal point in my adulthood – a core memory that hurt at the time but has served me well ever since. And it all stemmed from the word “no.”
It was my senior year, and I had no idea what to do with my life. I was a business major graduating during a recession, so I figured the next best step was going to graduate school…to keep figuring out what it was that I was supposed to do while the economy continued to tank. I went to one of my professors at the time and asked her for a letter of recommendation that was required for my application. I had done well in her class, had participated in a meaningful way, and was confident she’d support me in this manner. However, her response was “No, you’re not ready for graduate school.” While that statement alone may have been true, it’s how she said it and the explanation that followed. What I heard was “no, you’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough, you’re not going to make it big in this world.” Ouch, considering I just paid you thousands of dollars to actually get me ready for this world.
It was a major blow. It brought me back to grade school when I came home with a less than impressive report card and was told I’d work at McDonald’s for the rest of my life. I’ve been told “no” plenty of times, and while this isn’t a groundbreaking article on why being told no can be a motivator.
Here are my tips for what to do when you’re told “no.” 
Ask why. It’s easy to be offended and hurt when someone tells you no. Take pause, gather your composure, and ask “why.” Listen to their rationale, and don’t shy away from gaining better understanding. Those details will give you what you need to identify what it is you need to improve upon so you can continue to build your case to “yes.”
Take time to digest. Summarize what you heard. Sit with the reasoning. Journal about it. Dissect it until you can make sense of it and turn it into an opportunity instead of taking it as rejection. Don’t beat yourself up – it won’t get you anywhere. Once I started to look at the challenge as an opportunity, I was able to distance myself from the feeling that I had been personally attacked.
Make a plan. So now that you know what the gaps are, it’s time to make a plan to fill them in. Step by step, day by day, do one thing that will move you closer to “yes.” Maybe that’s watching one YouTube video on a new skill. Signing up for one class instead of an entire program. Or reading one Harvard Business Review article. Fear is what holds us back. Fear of failing yet again. A plan will help you break down what may seem like a mountain that you have to climb, to small manageable hills. A plan will make it all feel less daunting. Line ‘em up and knock ‘em down.
Execute. Enjoy the ride. While you’re filling one gap, you might identify a path that is the opposite from the one what you initially sought. For me, in this instance, I was forced to go out and get a job. That analyst job at a mediocre salary, taking notes for clients, turned into my current role overseeing six directorates and 800 people, with the same company who has championed me every step of the way. I would absolutely not be where I am today without my professor telling me NO!
Find your yes. Your “yes” may look different and even better than the what you had originally set out to achieve. Low and behold, I DID end up going to graduate school (just a few years later). And since then, have turned myself into a lifelong learner, receiving certificates from MIT and Harvard, and will continue to learn until the day I die.
I got to my yes, but on a path, I could have never imagined for myself. While it was different than what I thought was best for me at the ripe (very knowledgeable) age of 21, I’m thankful for the challenge my professor put in front of me, whether or not she meant to. I encourage you, in the words of Beth Comstock, to take “no” as “not yet”, take action in spite of your insecurities and get to your “yes.” Share your no-to-yes stories with me on LinkedIn!