In 1968, nineteen-year-old Vera Wang took a deep breath and stepped onto the ice at the U.S. National Skating Championships. With partner James Stuart in tow, she glided towards her dream of qualifying for that year’s Winter Olympics. She’d been working for this since the age of eight, and had recently dropped out of Sarah Lawrence College where she’d been earning a Liberal Arts degree. Tensions were high and everything was on the line.
But that elusive dream crumbled in one day. Wang didn’t qualify for the Olympics, which essentially ended her skating career. She was devastated. Until then, she’d lived the life of a professional child, devoting ten hours of rigorous training a day to her passion. What would she do now? Emotionally depleted, she sensed a change of scenery could help her process the pain. As she later put it, “I had a nervous breakdown and ended up doing a semester in Paris.”
Slowly acclimating herself to the city of love, Wang began to take her second crack at college more seriously. French culture provided solace to Olympic heartbreak and she gradually re-evaluated the world around her. Wang, who grew up in New York, had first been to Paris at the age of six when her parents had bought her first pair of charcoal grey Mary Janes. Now, in her junior year of college, this chic town was beginning to cast its spell. She spent her days studying the high fashion boutiques on Avenue Montaigne and buying fragrances at Guerlain on the Champs-Élysées. “It was my first feeling of being intrigued by fashion,” she later told the New York Times. “By things you wear. I suddenly just had this awakening or something.”
Upon returning to New York, she took a job folding blouses at the Yves Saint Laurent boutique on Madison Avenue. One day, by sheer luck, she waited on Vogue’s Fashion Director, Frances Patiky Stein. Charmed by Wang’s tenacity and enthusiasm, she offered her a job at the magazine.
One of the youngest editors to ever work for Vogue, Wang created the fashion spreads for over fifteen years. When the coveted editor-in-chief promotion came up in 1987, surely she would be the obvious choice. But, career heartbreak struck a second time and she was passed up for the position. Feeling raw, and once again, in search of a change in scenery, she left publishing to work as design director for Ralph Lauren. Soon enough, the inner voice of self expression began to call out.
This voice didn’t fully surface until 1989 when she got engaged. While planning her wedding to businessman Arthur Becker, Wang was mystified by the lack of dress options for brides over the age of twenty five (she was forty-years-old). “The dresses were overdone with too many frills and lace,” she said. “Nothing was simple, elegant, or even remotely sexy.” Wang took the bull by the horns, and designed her own understated wedding dress. It was an elegant, low cut piece with simple spaghetti straps, and it was a hit at her wedding.
Inspired to fill this gaping hole in the wedding fashion market, she opened a boutique at New York’s Carlyle hotel and launched her own bridal collection. Fast forward to today, and The Vera Wang brand is a pop culture staple and easily the most famous bridal couture brand on the planet. She has a net worth of $650 million and her label also features Ready-to-wear, Home, Fragrance, and Publishing.
What’s unique about Wang’s steady rise to fashion legend status is the way she responded to the heartbreaks. She wasn’t immune to the deep feelings of loss when her skating dream was cut short or when her blood, sweat, and tears were overlooked at Vogue. Rejection hurts everyone. But, as much as it stung, her response wasn’t to bury her head in the sand. It was to keep moving with purpose. In fact, each time she faced failure, it seemed to give her strength, as if being told no were a super power that fed her ambitions. Figure skating hadn’t ended in Olympic gold, but it provided a new metaphor in her life. No matter how many times you fall, get up and try again.
If you’ve been rejected lately, you’re in good company. It seems most household names have suffered their share of failure, and the bigger the success, the more humiliating the anecdote. From a young Oprah being fired because she couldn’t sever her emotions from her news stories, to an unknown Jerry Seinfeld learning he was kicked off a sitcom when he showed up and discovered his part missing from the script. As polarizing as it feels, rejection is something we all share in common. But so many of us fall like a house of cards in its presence. What is it that successful people recognize about rejection that others don’t? How do they transform such a painful wound into a powerful ally?
Strange how just a few words are sometimes painful to hear. “We’ll keep your resume on file” or everyone’s favorite, “let’s just be friends.” But, one of the most overlooked tools for overcoming these rejections of daily life is to redefine the meaning behind them. According to Author and Master Coach, Dr. Margie Warrell, the most successful people make a point of risking rejection constantly throughout their working lives. “When it happens, they know it’s not personal. It’s just life,” she says. “They refuse to misinterpret someone else’s subjective assessment of them to mean anything about their own worthiness.”
These people tend to have a fine tuned radar in seeking out opportunity. Even when it’s painful. Habitually, they’ve come to view their setbacks as setups. They use failure as a map to help them explore the areas they had no idea existed. The sword of rejection may cause pain, but they have the ability to process it without allowing self doubt to dig its claws in. In other words, they don’t spend much time feeling sorry for themselves. When they find opportunity in the hardship, they’re ready to pivot, which doesn’t give negative self talk time to sink in.
When Wang lost everything she’d worked for in one skating performance, she could have chosen the easy road of self pity. Instead, she searched out a way to reposition her vision elsewhere. “I was determined to explore life from a different perspective,” she said of her semester in Paris. She’d been given the chance to strengthen her rejection muscle, and observe the direction this setback would catapult her in. Years later, when she was overlooked again by Vogue, she’d developed a keen sense of what to do next, and used the rejection as a compass towards her deeper creative purpose.
In the spring of 2013, Wang’s life serendipitously brought her back to the start of her fashion journey. She was invited to be the key note speaker for Sarah Lawrence College’s graduating class. Looking as vibrant and youthful as she did in her figure skating days, Wang addressed the crowd with enthusiasm. It was evident she was still a hungry student of life. “Reinvention is crucial to survival and relevant now more than ever,” she began. “However, it requires immense flexibility, an open mind, and a creative spirit.” Wang recognizes this as well as anyone. She’s living proof that true success is a long game, and rejection can be that necessary push towards a fulfilled life.
As she closed out her speech to the graduates, Wang thoughtfully paused and gazed out at the crowd. “Behind every perceived success, is always some very significant failure, and the importance is to learn from it.” It’s clear that learning how to fail may have been the secret to Wang’s success all along.