I was rejected by Harvard, Stanford, Facebook and Google — my notes on failure

It’s been a few days now since our graduation at Restart Network, where people from war-torn countries work to start a new life through a career in technology. After each graduation I take a few days off to think about the good things that happened, and what can I learn from when I failed.

I am aware that my journey, through the lens of social media and public events, appears to be a constant stream of victories. I received heartfelt messages of support, heard about how I inspired others through my work, people share my TEDx talk, can read about my achievements in magazines and newspapers, and see my name in fancy lists such as Forbes Romania’s 30 Under 30 or the FD Best Entrepreneurs Under 35. I owe this to the incredible people around me.

And so, it would be a disservice to all the people who want to leave a dent in the world to leave the picture like that. Few people know that before creating Turing Society or Restart Network I wanted to help other people in their pursuit to make the world better, so I applied to both Facebook and Google for internships or entry level jobs — anything that would get me closer to working on something important. I got rejected every time. And the NOs follow to this day, both Harvard Business School and Stanford GSB sent me beautiful rejection letters wishing me the best on my path.

What I’m saying here is that winning and failing are just part of this game. You cannot have one without the other, taking risks will sometimes pay off and other times will hinder you. The most successful people on this planet have high failure rates. They stand successfully because, on average, we just need one strong YES, that will fade the hundreds of NOs in oblivion. We got to learn fast, and stand up a little wiser. What I’m most afraid of is in 80 years time to look back and wonder what if. The fear of not trying is greater than the fear of failing.

In our startup bubble, I hear a lot of people talking about celebrating failure. Always wondered what they mean… That we should smile when things break, that we should appreciate the learning opportunity in front of us, that failing is good? Failure hurts. We weren’t good enough, we did not work hard enough, we let ourselves and those around us down.

But here’s the secret.

In basketball, there are matches where the top player throws five times behind the three-point line and scores each time — people go crazy, perfect strikes. But matches are not won like that, if an average player shoots 50 times and maybe hits the hoop 20 times, the team ends up with a lot more points. Quality comes from quantity, to truly know what works we must be okay with failing to achieve our goals.

I must say this because we live in a world where every day we see on our screens, in our news, and social circles, people who celebrate their success and understandably omit their failures — I do it, too. But I realise that those of you out there who have something burning inside and want to use that flame to build something in the world that moves us all forward will be discouraged to try. Because people around you always seem to get that deal, speaking gig, news coverage, or award, that you were also working for, but missed.

Failure is a cold friend, keeps us humble, but fuels our next move. I feel good when I fail, how lucky must I be to have the privilege to try.