It’s safe to say everyone above the age of five has experienced rejection at some point or the other.
My first memory of rejection is a bit vague but I know it involved a fine art competition in primary school. We were all supposed to draw something and the best one wins the prize. I remember standing in front of a classroom with the other kids presenting our work and mine not getting picked. I think some of the kids even laughed at my drawing.
I remember crying all the way home that day. I was inconsolable. It wasn’t until my dad got back and sat me on his lap that I stopped wailing.
I will never forget what he said to me that day – “I don’t know why they laughed at you but I know they can never laugh at you if you’re the one with the highest grades and taking the first position” (he spoke in Yoruba).
That statement hit me deep. I went on to score the highest grade every year onwards, from Class 3 to 5.
I’m grateful for that day, even though I had no idea how significant that day would be for me. With my dad tactfully redirecting my pain and embarrassment, he laid the foundation for something I’d have to do, and I’ve been doing, professionally everyday.
Creative work and rejection
I don’t know much about other industries but in the creative industry, rejection comes rapidly and often, and it hurts every single time.
It hurts because creativity involves tapping into the deeper cores of your soul. It requires a lot of emotional commitment and courage to bare your soul to the outside world. Then, to have that creation critiqued and shot down, or flat out rejected, is painful beyond measure.
Often, it feels like a part of you is being squished into tiny fragments and the aftermath can be psychologically intense if not properly managed.
Quick career tip for authors: Never ever ever read reviews of your book. Resist the urge. Also, stay away from Goodreads, if you love your self confidence. You’re welcome.
There was a particular month my stories got rejected by so many publishers, I actually gave up writing short stories for about a year. I mean, I had read about how hard it was to get published but my first hand experience overwhelmed me.
Creativity takes a lot of grit. Not only in producing new and awesome stuff, but also in receiving and managing rejection.
But here is the thing – over time I have come to appreciate the rejection process. Of course, no creative person presents his ideas or art with the hope of getting them rejected. But when (not if) they do get rejected, you should welcome it with open arms.
You know why?
Because rejection can make you even more creative, if you handle it right.
How rejection helps me write better
Creativity needs 2 things:
- a steady supply of diverse content for stimulation
- a feedback mechanism.
Rejection is simply feedback on steroids!
It forces you to look again at your work, exploring it from new angles.
I’ll use an example from my day job which involves a significant amount of writing everyday.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), my boss is also a writer and she has very high standards. We publish articles in two national newspapers every other week and every month.
However, the journey from blank page to press is always rocky.
I’ve poured my soul into some articles, writing and editing all night to meet a deadline, only for my boss to say, “This is not good enough.”
I’ve written articles that I swore couldn’t be improved upon, only to be told to go back to the drawing board and bring back something better. As depressing and often painful as that usually feels, I always end up coming back with something better.
Creativity is like a precious resource – you have to dig deep to reach the good stuff. And when you think you’ve run out of it, you dig deeper.
With experience comes the tendency to be complacent, lazy even. When you’ve been writing professionally for a few years, you can more or less do your job with your eyes closed. So we tend to “phone it in”.
Well, rejection is a really loud wake up call.
No matter how good you get, you will still face rejection.
Tobias S. Buckell puts it this way – “I have oppositional defiance in me. Being told I suck fuels me to try harder.“ (Read the full article).
I like that. I think every writer should have that kind of attitude towards criticism and rejection.
Rejection, even though it hurts, can also be helpful, if you let it.
It also helps if you quickly learn to distance yourself from your work.
Like I always tell my friends – “Don’t tell me what I did well. Tell me what I didn’t do well. You don’t need to pamper me. I know I can write, I just want to write better. So tell me how I can do that.”
I’m also reminded of this quote:
Be prepared to get knocked off the pedestal that all copywriters, art directors, and designers put themselves on. Because, when you think you’ve done your best, the right leadership will always tell you that you can do better, and they’re almost always right. – Mishal Jagjivan
I really love this quote because it is so true.
You can always do better.
Does it mean more work? Yes.
Is it worth it? Usually, yes.
In August, I wrote this piece for The Guardian on development and women inequity. I must have rewritten that piece several times over before it got a pass mark from my boss. I actually gave up on it at one point and simply moved on. But my boss didn’t want to give up on the idea. So she kept on my back.
I’m grateful for that because it is a really important piece and when we finally published it, the response has been humbling. In fact, if you walk into Lagos Business School today, right there on the screen behind the receptionist, you’ll see excerpts from the article, displayed for all staff and visitors to see.
It’s been there for two months and counting.
It resonated that much!
Everytime I feel exasperated and dejected at having my work rejected, I remember how much work it took to write something that really mattered, how many times it was rejected, how many times I started over and came up with something different each time.
Truth be told, the more awesome you think your work is, the more it needs to be critiqued. We are often too myopic to see the flaws in our creation, so flat out rejection is usually the only remedy.
Rejection is part of the creative process.
Expect it. Embrace it. Use it.