Rejection is a Good Teacher

Robert Hammond is executive director and co-founder (with Joshua David) of Friends of the High Line. The non-profit group is responsible for the High Line park located on a once derelict, elevated rail line that was built in 1934 on New York City’s west side. Their phenomenal success in reviving this remnant from the past […]

Robert Hammond is executive director and co-founder (with Joshua David) of Friends of the High Line. The non-profit group is responsible for the High Line park located on a once derelict, elevated rail line that was built in 1934 on New York City’s west side. Their phenomenal success in reviving this remnant from the past continues to inspire projects and people all over the world and has brought a new vitality to the west side, as well as to the city itself. Hammond, who is a Rome Prize fellow and co-recipient of the Jane Jacobs Medal from the Rockefeller Foundation, delivered the commencement speech at New York’s New School on May 18th. –SSS

I was not sure what to say today. The only other graduation ceremony I have been to was my own, almost 20 years ago, and I don’t remember any of the speeches.

I have seen those videos of graduation addresses that are sent around on Facebook at this time of year, and it seems like most people tell uplifting stories. And I love inspirational stories and self-help books. Actually… I used to be embarrassed about reading them, but now that the High Line is open, I don’t mind so much. I can say with confidence that the self-help books really did help.

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Yet, talking about positive affirmations and my inspirational story seemed kind of lame, kind of like being caught on the subway while reading Eat, Pray, Love—which I did read and really liked. So no, I am not going to talk about self help. Instead I thought it might be more interesting to talk about rejection and a little bit of the High Line story.

[Holds up stack of rejection letters] This is the stack of my job rejection letters from the year I graduated from college. That was 1993, back before the rejection email.

Robert Hammond, photo by Jerry Speier.

Like many of you, I was graduating from a liberal arts school. I majored in history, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to be successful. But I never really thought about what success meant.

I had this vague idea about what a career should be—get a job as an consultant or investment banker for two years, then go to business school, and then success and happiness would follow.

I didn’t know if I could be a banker or a consultant for my whole life, but I thought it would be a good way to make money and get some business experience. It’s what all my other ambitious friends were doing.

That was my first mistake. I spent hours interviewing and looking for jobs, but I never spent one hour thinking about what I really wanted to do with my life.

Instead I threw my energy into writing cover letters and tweaking my resume. I was an over-achiever. I had strong grades. I was well rounded. I ended up getting lots of interviews.

I usually made it to the second or third round, and then I received one of these rejections letters… and they just kept coming.

As graduation approached, most of my friends had gotten jobs, but I wasn’t too worried. I sort of liked the interviewing process, and I kept getting called back. But by mid-summer, I was in a panic with no job and most positions already filled.

It wasn’t until the November, six months after graduation, that I finally got a job at a consulting firm. By that time, I had amassed these 50 rejection letters. I kept them because I wanted to prove to myself, and all these companies, that one day they would be sorry that they did not hire me, that they had made a huge mistake.

What I did not understand was that these companies were right and I was wrong. I might have been smart enough to do the job, but I would never be a good fit in the corporate world. These companies could sense that I needed to be doing something different, something maybe more creative. I was so driven to succeed that I didn’t notice what these rejection letters were trying to tell me.

I remember I had this sinking feeling on the first day of orientation at my new job that I had wanted so badly. I knew that I was in the wrong place, and in the months to come, it proved to be true. I was so bored. I wanted to do something different. So, rather than spend a lot of money on graduate school, I decided to take a huge pay cut to find some work that inspired me.

I left the consulting firm and took a job at a start-up that excited me but couldn’t afford to pay me. I said, “Look, I’ll work for $15,000 a year.” They really couldn’t say no.

This turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. That job led to work with all kinds of different start-up companies. I ended up staying in this for the next eight years.

In 1999 I got my very first office… an office with a door. I was working for an in-flight catalog that sold nose hair trimmers and gold roses from airplanes. It was a competitor of Sky Mall.

You might laugh, but I loved my job. I loved my job and thought of that catalog as my baby. But I found work more fulfilling when I was working on other things, and not just my job. That’s when I started looking around for more things to do. I taught myself to paint, and at night, I would put on my artist hat. But this office with a door gave me the chance to do other things at work.

I had read an article in the New York Times about the High Line. The article said it was going to be demolished. I had known about the High Line because I lived in the neighborhood and had always seen it, but I had never really given it much thought.

Everything in New York has a preservation group attached to it, so I thought I could maybe volunteer by stuffing envelopes or fundraising. I asked around, and I realized that no one else was involved, but I heard it would be on the agenda at the next community meeting.

I had never been to one of these meetings, nor had I ever wanted to go to one. I ended up sitting next to this guy I didn’t know. His name was Joshua David, and it turned out that he was interested in the High Line too. By the end of the meeting, we realized that we were the only two people in the room who wanted to save the High Line. Most people either did not care or they hated it and wanted to tear it down.

So, like you often do in New York, Josh and I exchanged business cards. I remember Josh said, “Why don’t you start something and I can help out?” And I said, “Well, I’m too busy. Why don’t you start something and I’ll help out?” We realized that neither one of us was going to do it on our own, so we decided to work together. That’s how we began Friends of the High Line.

That was 13 years ago. I have always been a dreamer, but I am also a realist. When I first told my mother about the project, she asked me what the chances were of it actually happening. I told her it was one in a hundred.

Fast forward… the crazy dream became a reality, and the High Line has been so much more successful than we could have ever imagined. Before it opened in 2009, we thought maybe 300,000 people would visit the High Line. We were wrong. Last year, the High Line had more than 3.7 million visitors.

Every day we get requests for help from all over the world. People ask how we did it. They want to see our business plan for saving the High Line. They’re often surprised to hear that we never had one. Now I realize that one of the secrets to our success was that we had no plan, no money, and no relevant experience.

People assume that Josh and I are architects or urban planners. But I was just a liberal arts major working in start-ups and an artist on the side, and Josh was a travel writer. We were just two guys from the neighborhood with an unlikely dream. My favorite was when we were once introduced by one of our more prominent supporters as a pair of “neighborhood nobodies.”

Now I talk to a lot of people starting their own companies or nonprofits. Everyone tells them they need a “laser-like vision” of what it’s going to be… how it’s going to work… and how they are going to execute. Instead, we had a broad vision. We said, “Let’s save it and think about what to do with it.”

This was the best thing we did. This loose vision—not really knowing what the High Line would be—this let other people get involved and imagine the possibilities for themselves. Josh and I get a lot of credit for saving the High Line, but the most important thing that we did was to raise the flag. That allowed other people with expertise and skills we did not have to rally around the project.

And we couldn’t have done it without this community of people. They shared our excitement for the High Line. The photographer Joel Sternfeld was one of them. One of the first things we did was ask Joel to take photographs of the High Line.

At the time, the elevated railroad was a mile and half of overgrown wildflowers and grasses. The last freight train ran on the High Line in the 1980s, carrying a trainload of frozen turkeys at Thanksgiving, and since then, nature had taken over. There was this wildscape that had grown up between the tracks when the trains stopped running, and Joel helped us to capture it. His photographs were our best sales technique. They didn’t focus on what we wanted it to be. Rather, his photographs helped us show others what it was and got them excited about the possibility.

The High Line is now pretty popular, and it’s hard to understand that people were once opposed to it. When we started it, the majority of people did not like it. The community was very skeptical, and it took four years to convince the community board to vote in favor of the High Line. The property owners all wanted to get rid of it. One developer spent over $3 million trying to fight it in court. Mayor Giuliani was dead set on tearing it down. He even signed a demolition order two days before he left office.

Even with Joel’s photographs, most people had never heard of the High Line. It was incredibly difficult to explain: “There’s this elevated railroad and it runs through the Meatpacking District and Chelsea.” Even most New Yorkers didn’t know what it was, and when they asked what we wanted to do with the High Line, we didn’t have a clear answer for them.

So we decided to hold an ideas competition to get people excited about the possibilities. It wasn’t a formal design competition. We just asked people to come up with big ideas for the High Line. They did not have to be realistic or buildable. We got more than 720 entries from all over the world, ranging from a 1.5-mile-long lap pool to an urban rollercoaster. That was my favorite… Imagine a rollercoaster zooming next to windows and above the streets.

The ideas came from all different types of people, not just architects and designers, but students, artists, and local residents. We got so many amazing ideas that we decided to organize a show at Grand Central Terminal. Millions of people ended up seeing the ideas, and all of a sudden, more people were interested in getting involved.

We held a series of community input meetings with our neighbors and anyone who was interested. We asked them what they thought, and they gave us their feedback on each of the crazy ideas from the competition. Slowly, we built support for the project. But this is New York—where real estate is king—and we knew eventually we would need to partner with City Hall to make this really happen.

When Mayor Bloomberg was elected he liked the idea, but this was right after 9/11. There were lots of other priorities. We commissioned an economic feasibility study to show that the High Line made business sense. We wanted to show how much it would cost to build and how the City would benefit in tax revenues.

The study showed it would cost $100 million to build but that it would generate more than $250 million in direct tax benefits for the city.

It turns out that we got both numbers wrong. It has cost $150 million to build so far, but an updated study shows that the city will see almost $900 million in new tax revenues over the next 20 years.

I’m going to go back to rejection.

You might assume I have naturally thick skin, that those rejection letters did not bother me. I actually have a thin skin, and I was deeply upset that those people did not want to hire me.

The turning point came for me at one of the start-ups where I was working in sales. We had just launched a catalog for hotel rooms that promised overnight delivery for things you forgot. I needed to convince hotel managers to offer the catalog in their rooms. It took a while to get a call with anyone, and then they usually were not interested. But sales is a numbers game. You need lots of rejections to get one sale.

So instead of a daily sales goal, I reversed the normal rules of the game and developed a daily rejection goal. If I wasn’t getting rejected, I wasn’t trying hard enough. If I got a lot of rejections, I made my goal.

I don’t have a good way to wrap all this up into one memorable phrase. I guess what I’m trying to say to you is: Sometimes rejection can be a good teacher. Sometimes you almost need to seek it out to be freed from it. When you see the High Line, I hope it reminds you that crazy dreams can come true, and if that is too precious, then maybe you can use my rejection game. It also works pretty well in bars.

Thank you, and congratulations on your graduation.

Robert Hammond is Co-founder & Executive Director of Friends of the High Line. Among other honors, he is a Rome Prize fellow of the American Academy in Rome and is co-recipient of the Jane Jacobs Medal from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Check out some of Metropolis early coverage of the High Line, High Life on the High Line, Friends in High Places, The High Line, our during-construction coverage The Long View, it’s opening On the High Line at Last, and the most recent expansion High Line Expansion.

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