Do people know how others view them? It is an interesting and important question, and years ago, Professor Dave Kenny and I reviewed all the studies we could find on the topic. Dave was a professor at Harvard when I was a graduate student there, and years later, we were still collaborating.
We wrote up our review paper and sent it to the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (PSPB). It is a very good journal and we thought we had a good paper. But PSPB rejected our paper. Dave was first author, and I asked him what we should do next. Typically, you have a mental list of places to send your articles, and if it is rejected by one, you move on down your list to another journal that is not quite as prestigious.
Dave had a different idea. He suggested we instead submit our article to what is perhaps the most prestigious journal for review articles in all of psychology, Psychological Bulletin. I was surprised and not at all hopeful, but what the heck. At worst, we lose a few months while we wait for it to get rejected, and then move on down our list.
Instead, it was accepted. “Do people know how others view them?” was published in Psychological Bulletin in 1993. A quarter-century later, people still ask me about that. (Our answer to the question, based on the research available at the time, is that when trying to figure out what other people think of them, people rely more on what they think of themselves than on the actual feedback they are getting from others. They think other people see them the way they see themselves. They are not good at recognizing variation from one person to another in how they are seen.)
From Dave Kenny, I learned that one possible response to rejection is to set your sights higher instead of lower. We failed up.
I never tried that again until this year. These days, I still write for academic journals occasionally. But I want to get my research-based, affirming perspective on single people out there, so I more often write for the kinds of places that reach lots of different readers and not just fellow academics.
For more than a year, I’ve been working on an article I care about a lot. I think it has an intriguing myth-busting message, and it is grounded in lots of excellent research. I sent it to the first place on my list. It got rejected. I sent it to the next place, and then the one after that, and then the one after that. After a while, I stopped counting the rejections. Some of the places did not even bother sending a rejection letter – they just ignored me.
Finally, I remembered my long-ago experience of failing up. So I wrote a new pitch about the article I wanted to write, and sent it to one of the very top places on my list – somewhere I have wanted to publish for a while but never have succeeded.
Much to my astonishment and delight, it was accepted.
Chances are, if you try this strategy of failing up, it is going to fail. But every once in a while, it doesn’t.