Fear of rejection is an interesting thing. All social animals fear it on some level because being ostracized from your community has historically meant suffering and death. For a lot of people, being rejected even in minor ways feels even worse than dying, and many of us tie our self-worth to avoiding rejection. Of course, the simple answer to that is to develop your self-esteem so that it has nothing to do with how other people react to you. And yes, some people find it difficult to build self-esteem, but it can be done. In fact, may I suggest doing volunteer work, which is a proven and generous way to build your self-esteem?
Also, I’d like to make it clear that critiques are not the same as rejection. Critiques may sting, but that means someone cares enough to point out that you need to work on something, and if you put that advice to good use, you’ll be able to improve yourself, which is a great thing.
For this edition of “Been There, Done That”, I’ll be focusing strictly on dealing with work-related rejection, but hopefully you’ll find something useful for other types of rejection, too.
Lesson 1: Rejection is personal if you make it personal.
The music industry is notorious for turning the dreams and careers of many talented people into toilet paper. When I worked there, part of my job included sifting through boxes of CDs (for those who are too young to know, this was the big technological advancement of my era, when we made the leap from the medieval cassette tape to shiny compact discs that contained music in digitized form) from artists who had been signed to a label but for one reason or another hadn’t been chosen as a priority. I had to listen to all of the CDs and pick out any ones that I thought would work for a particular market or for Southeast Asia.
The sheer number of CDs I had to listen to plus the other work I had to actually do meant that the music never really got a chance to be heard properly, and most of them ended up being unpromoted and the artists never got the recognition or money they may have deserved. And sometimes, even the artists whose music managed to slip through wouldn’t get the push they needed because of office politics (someone hated someone on their label and wanted revenge) or any other petty reason (the nice stereo system broke down and no one wants to listen to music on the cheap one).
Sometimes, rejection is just a confluence of different things that have nothing to do with you. There’s no point in agonizing over it, which leads us to:
Lesson 2: Even if it is personal, don’t make it worse.
A Buddhist friend of mine had this conversation with me before:
Friend: If someone was shooting arrows at you, what would you do?
Me: I’d run away, of course.
Friend: Then how come you go back to pick up the arrows on the ground and stab yourself with them?
You can’t stop people from rejecting you because they don’t like you or something you’ve created, but you don’t have to make yourself suffer over it. Just walk away and don’t torture yourself. If someone doesn’t like your work, big deal. It doesn’t make you less worthy as a person; you are the same person you were before you got this rejection.
Also, think of it this way: if this is the worst that could happen, then you’ve already survived it. So congratulations, you’re a survivor! It’s over!
I’m not saying that you should swallow your feelings and ignore them. In fact, you should actually take a moment to feel them fully and do your best to identify what they are (“This makes me feel discouraged because I was really proud of this work”). This doesn’t mean wallowing, but simply acknowledging that it’s okay to feel bad. Then let those feelings go. If you have to, thank them for reminding you that you care, and then ask them to make room for other, happier feelings. And now you can move on if you…
Lesson 3: Turn rejections into learning experiences.
To think of rejection or approval in terms of winning or losing is dangerous because it creates a zero-sum mentality that is unrealistic. Throughout a creative career, there will be times that your work will be well-received, and there will be times that it won’t be. That’s just life, and it’s perfectly fine because rejections aren’t failures. Getting a pitch approved or selling a piece of work isn’t winning. These are both learning experiences in different forms.
Use both rejections and success as ways to further improve yourself. Every experience teaches us something new, whether it’s to be more careful about presenting our work or to find self-awareness in our feelings of dejection. And anything that you learn is something to be grateful for. In fact, practicing gratitude daily may be one of the best ways of dealing with rejection and inviting happiness into your life.
And then, most importantly, very soon after the rejection, do something positive or proactive with what you’ve learned. Plan another round of pitches. Make changes to your work. Reach out to other potential clients. Feeling like you’ve accomplished something, no matter how small, will go a long way towards bolstering your resilience.
Now, you may be thinking: what if all these rejections mean that I should quit? How do I know if I really suck and not meant to be pursuing this career? Obviously, you’re the only one who can answer that honestly, but Tim from Wait But Why has a great (although very long) post about picking a career that actually fits you.