When you spend some serious effort on something, be it developing a system, writing a paper, or coming up with an idea as a solution to a problem, it is only normal that you want to share it with others and more often than not, seek recognition and approval. Unfortunately, you might hit a wall and your idea might be rejected. That is generally not the outcome you are after and it certainly doesn’t boost your morale. But have you ever thought about famous rejections? Let’s take computer science, literature, physics and mathematics and see who were rejected for which ideas:
- Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web as we know it, was rejected by a conference committee. The conference was about HyperText. They didn’t like Lee’s paper. We don’t remember their names.
- Bertrand Meyer, who invented the programming language Eiffel in 1986, was rejected by a journal referee. The justification was given as: “I think time will show that inheritance (section 1.5.3) is a terrible idea. … Systems that do automatic garbage collection and prevent the designer from doing his own memory management are not good systems for industrial-strength software engineering.” Many concepts initially introduced by Eiffel programming language later found their way into Java, C#, and other programming languages. We don’t remember the name of the person who rejected Meyer’s paper.
- Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance claims that his famous book was rejected 121 times before being accepted by William Morrow Publishers. The book sold 5 million copies worldwide. We don’t remember who rejected the book.
- Évariste Galois, the genius mathematician who lived only 20 years (long enough to lay down the foundations for Galois theory and group theory, two major branches of abstract algebra), was rejected by Poisson. He did not take this rejection very lightly.
- And finally, Einstein’s idea that “light itself consists of localized particles (quanta)” was nearly universally rejected by all physicists, including Max Planck and Niels Bohr. It became accepted a few years later, and the rest is history. At least, in these last two cases we still remember the people who rejected the ‘newcomer’.
What can be the take home lesson based on these interesting examples? My candidates are:
- Never forget about survivorship bias. Especially when you are faced with some bold claims exemplified by outstanding people.
- If you are smart, had a world-class education from smart people, believe in your idea, and have been rejected by someone, no matter how smart he or she might be, keep on going. You might not get rich, but you might create the crucial solution to an important problem, thus be a part of the grand and beautiful culture of humanity.
Think: What would happen if those people, whose ideas were rejected by authorities in their respective fields, would take those rejections seriously and stopped following those ideas and push further?
Next time your idea gets rejected… well, think again.