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The Rejection Letter

Ayaat Yassin-Kassab considers her prospects after graduation, the meaning of 'passion', and how to deal with rejection.

What exactly did I plan to do with my life? For 20 years, words like ‘talent’ and ‘potential’ have floated around me. I’m confident, charming, intelligent, I’m good. But not good at anything, except maybe Wordle. Before my Oxford interviews, I prayed they wouldn’t ask me something like ‘why Oxford?’ or ‘why literature?’. If they had, I would have blinked back at them and delivered some obviously phony speech about passion and drive and bringing diversity to the field, and they would have smiled up at me and crossed out my name in bright red ink. Instead, they asked me to analyse poems and talk about them, so I did. My talent, my ‘passion’, was evident in my work, and I was afforded the luxury of avoiding that ominous question for a while.

At the time of writing this, I just received a rejection letter. I had secured my place on a journalism course but was in desperate need of funding. I was shortlisted after a written application, had the interview, and a few days later, was told that the interview panel: “were not convinced of [my] drive or passion for journalism”. There they were – my least favourite words, ‘drive’ and ‘passion’, the ones I was glad to dodge in my interview three years ago, and the ones that let me down today.

My ego took a hit. I was rejected! That’s not fun. But there was something about that line that stood out from the rest of the (thankfully brief) rejection letter, something that went beyond vanity. Once the gut punch had subsided, and after I had called my mum and informed her of the outcome, I realised that those words would be the ones to let me down again and again in interviews to come, because I myself am not convinced of my passion or drive for anything in particular.

In a field that has become so competitive, you need to be bloodthirsty. You need to communicate a burning, spitting determination compelled by some profound experience or longing.  The word ‘passion’ (I hate to do this but I’ve spent three long years as an English student so I do – technically and according to zero rulebooks – have the right) is derived from the Latin ‘pati’ meaning ‘to suffer’, and all OED definitions of ‘passion’ in its noun form are linked to ideas of suffering, pain, disease, or extreme emotion lapsing into mental derangement. I don’t feel that way about anything. I really like writing articles, and editing them, and I could see myself effectively bossing people around as an editor one day – it’s that simple. To me, that’s good enough. That’s confirmation that I’d thrive in the field. I enjoy journalism without being able to explain why. I’m also not that interested in communicating my ‘passion’ and I’m too stubborn to hone that skill. Perhaps that makes me difficult…

But the question still plagues me. ‘Why?’ Why literature, why Oxford, why journalism, why anything at all? Why is there no deeper meaning behind what I do, and why can I not win over an interview panel where all I have to do is explain why? The ego thing probably holds more sway than I initially let on – I’m hurt that they didn’t like me, and it makes me dislike myself. But I’m also worried that I’m simply not interesting enough to care deeply about anything, and that means that I won’t succeed.

But I ask myself again: what exactly did I – before my degree ended, and before my funding rejection – plan to do with my life? I suppose I planned to float through it, and I expected that some opportunities would pass me by, and other more suitable ones would present themselves to me fairly willingly. Although I’m no stranger to hard work, I expected that some good luck would push me forward and decorate the career path with a few rose petals. I planned to spend time writing and reading, to spend some time in the sun, to spend some time with my loved ones, and to make some nice meals for dinner. At Oxford, there is a high-achieving atmosphere that encourages us to keep pushing and makes us feel guilty when we don’t. But I’ve just finished my degree and ‘passion’, or something similar to the interview panel’s definition of it, is not something I’ve found yet. So (and this felt to me like a big realisation) why don’t I stay at home and do what I planned to do all along?

My plan is one that is unfixed, unfastened, and yet I expected certainty. This is the first of many rejections I will get. It’s an opportunity for real reflection which, I’ve discovered, feels more like a lurching of the stomach than a clearing of the fog. In the meantime I’ll be at home, reading, resting, and gravitating to whatever actually interests me.

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