How the President of Nasdaq turns failure into success

April 17, 2015, 11:30 AM UTC
Photograph by Christopher Galluzzo

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How should every successful woman deal with rejection? is written by Adena Friedman, president of Nasdaq.

Nobody gets through life without experiencing some form of rejection, which is why everybody knows how awful it feels. I remember feeling like I had been punched in the gut when I was wait-listed from my first-choice college—in a polite letter telling me my chances of being accepted were minimal and suggested that I explore other schools. The ache goes away in time, but it’s the other remnants of rejection that are so important to recognize. We have a choice about what we take from the experience, and that choice can affect our future in important ways. We can choose resentment–it’s a natural reaction. It’s hard not to take it personally when being wait-listed, passed over for a promotion, or losing a client to a competitor. But while feeling aggrieved may be an understandable reaction, it’s not productive–it’s not a good use of the experience. The best thing we can do with rejection is to make it a learning experience–rejection is a great teacher. Here are a few ideas on how to turn rejection into success:

Ask for feedback
It is important to understand why you were rejected. Ask for feedback—politely and professionally. Seek an explanation as to what about your proposal/job application/submission was not good enough. Was it the content, the delivery, or the chemistry? What did the competitor offer or present that made them the better choice? Most times, those who have done the rejecting will open up when asked, even if they squirm with discomfort while doing so.

Practice self-reflection
However, if people won’t talk–or if they brush you off with well-mannered but empty clichés–move on to the next important source of information: yourself. Rejection should ignite soul-searching, and the soul-searching must be absolutely honest. Self-reflection and awareness are important, character-building habits to hone. According to a study by the Korn/Ferry Institute on the characteristics of great leaders indicates that the best, most successful leaders are those who are self-aware. You can probably guess why your client either looked elsewhere or was susceptible to hearing the case your competition could bring. If the list only includes those things that are outside of your control, you are probably not being honest with yourself. Dig deep to reflect upon those areas where you could have done better.

Develop a plan to improve
Make a plan for your improvement and execute the plan. This may sound like a cliché, but like all clichés, it is sound advice at its core. The very people who rejected you once are bound to notice the improvement and be less ready to turn you down next time, which puts you squarely on schedule to turn a rejection into a win. You may end up being grateful for having been rejected in the first place. I have found that rejection can serve as a great catalyst and push you from “almost good enough” to “truly exceptional” allowing you to finally reach your goal.

Still wondering how I dealt with being wait-listed from my top choice college? After moping for a bit, it motivated me to become even more involved in my studies and more active outside the classroom. I wrote the admissions office a heart-felt letter setting forth exactly why I believed I was right for the school and why I deserved to be accepted. It did the job. I entered Williams College that autumn.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: How should every successful woman deal with rejection?

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The most important business lesson I learned in my 20s by Barbara Dyer, president and CEO of The Hitachi Foundation.

How failure helped me start my own business by Maren Kate Donovan, CEO of Zirtual.

Why women need to stop holding back at work by Gloria Cordes Larson, president of Bentley University.

So you didn’t get the promotion. What’s next? by Debbie Messemer, managing partner at KPMG San Francisco.

Why even the best employees need to experience failure byPerry Yeatman, CEO of Perry Yeatman Global Partners.

You’ve made a mistake at work. Now what? by Stacia Pierce, CEO of Ultimate Lifestyle Enterprises.

How rejection made me a better employee (27 years later) by Liz Wiseman, president of Wiseman Group.

How to bounce back from rejection at work by Kathy Collins, CMO at H&R Block.

The upside of failure by Cathy Baron Tamraz, chairwoman and CEO of Business Wire.

3 steps to overcome rejection at work by Shiza Shahid, co-founder and ambassador of Malala Fund

How to avoid overreacting at work by Mary Civiello, president of Civiello Communications Group.

Why the best leaders are defined by their failures by Alyse Nelson, CEO and co-founder of Vital Voices Global Partnership.

5 stages of rejection (and how to deal) by Beth Fisher-Yoshida, director of Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program at Columbia University.

Keep making mistakes at work? Here’s how to recover by Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.

How to successfully deal with rejection at work by Beth Monaghan, principal and co-founder of InkHouse.

How to shake off rejection like Taylor Swift by Beth Comstock, senior vice president and CMO of General Electric.

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