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How To Deal With Creative Rejection

I recently came across this anonymously-written article, ‘What I’m really thinking: the failed novelist’ in The Guardian Books section, written by someone whose frustration at having two manuscripts rejected had caused them to give up on their dream of being a published author. In David Barnett’s response, which appeared in the same publication just a few days later, he basically tells said failed novelist to suck it in, blow it out, then try harder and better next time. As well-opined – and quite correct, in my opinion – as Barnett’s response is, it dawned on me that highly successful creatives, academics and entrepreneurs seemingly never tire in convincing us to internalize failure in pursuit of the eventual rewards that its counterpart – success – can bring. Last year, Princeton scholar Johannes Haushofer went viral with his CV Of Failures, whilst in her memoir, Walk Through Walls (also last year), performance artist Marina Abramović writes, ‘failures are very important – they mean a great deal to me.’ J.K. Rowling also got in on the act and was praised for sharing rejection letters received as her literary alter ego, Robert Galbraith.

Whilst there are quotes, essays ganging up on us, it seems, to testify that rejection and failure is in the normal keeping of things, there are few practicable strategies that we – particularly as creative freelancers – can employ. Therefore, as we embark on creative or risky ventures and are reminded of as well as minded to the fact that we must steel ourselves for failure and criticism, how are we to cultivate our rhinoceros skin and stitch together our bulletproof quilts?

This year, I appear to have reached a tipping point in my capacity to accept rejection, whether communicated to me directly, or apropos that breezy waft of silence that so commonly passes for rejection these days. During the course of this lightbulb moment, I could actually feel my skin metaphorically harden rhinoceros-like. I contemplated the fact if X client didn’t like what I was selling then, whilst I was naturally disappointed about it, that disappointment did not check my stride one centimetre. I should say that it has taken almost five years to feel this way and, believe me, there is still much work to be done. But what follows are four important strategies that I believe are vital in cultivating a rhinoceros-like skin.

Create work that you’re proud of
Developing a rhinoceros skin, or a bulletproof quilt, means accepting rejection and moving on. As Seth Godin says, ‘A ‘no’ doesn’t mean no to you. Rather, it more than likely means, ‘No – because I’ve decided to save money, because that’s what my boss wants me to do.’ Creating work you are proud of enables you to stand steadfastly behind it, and also better enables you to separate rejection of work from rejection of self. Why? Because if you create work that you’re not proud of, when that inevitable rejection comes, you’ll think it’s because the work isn’t good enough, because deep down this is what you believe to be true. Eliminate the possibility of being rejected for not being good enough, and you will find it far easier to move on, quicker.

Face a lot of rejection
Or, in other words: put yourself out there. Dare companies and clients to reject you. Put your-self in their faces and force them to actively reject you, rather than passively slinking away and making it easy and comfortable for them to reject you. Obviously, try not to be weird or inappropriate about it, but face down rejection many, many, many times and eventually it will become easier (though never easy). I have estimated that since January 2013, I have been rejected well over 300 times. In the past three weeks alone, I’ve had three rejections, one of which was a real gut buster. I’m rejected a lot less now than I was in 2013, but still, a lot. I move on quickly because I know that a) I believe in what I do, and b) I’m more likely to be rejected than accepted. These are the odds most of us are dealing with. My aim is not to fetishise rejection, however. It’s just that I have adjusted to dealing with it as a normal part of my professional life.

Stay busy
Following on somewhat from my previous point, facing a lot of rejection means creating a large number of opportunities to be rejected. This will involves chasing people and opportunities. But it doesn’t have to be a grind, and doing it little and often can go a long way to making it less tedious, if you’re organised about it. A long time ago I worked in sales (for one year as an analyst), and I would approach lead generation in the following, cyclical way. I wouldn’t spend all day or all week generating just one type of lead; I might spend a morning research-ing raw leads, another hour before lunch calling leads I’d sourced in the previous three to four days. In the afternoon, setting up sales meetings with the leads I’d already telephoned and maybe some dead time at the end of the day reading trade papers. As a creative freelancer, I don’t have to be as regimented as my sales analyst model. However, by having a few irons in the fire at any one time, the dull ache of rejection is significantly deadened.

Share your rejection
We may not feel like broadcasting our rejections and failures, but I have recently discovered that saying, ‘Oh, I went for that but I didn’t get it,’ is not shame-inducing. By sharing our experience with others, we can show that we are active, positive-minded people. It shows a willingness to roll up one’s sleeves, get down to work, and do something hoping to be positive as to opposed to gnashing teeth and carping at the harshness of the world from the sidelines. In this respect, talking about our rejection can help us to rationalise where we are and better understand where we need to be. 

[This article originally appeared on Creative Digest.]