Let’s talk about rejection, baby.
Back in 2017, I applied for an internship with a local branding and design studio that was famous for doing great work and building authentic community. I wore my 8-month-old baby to the group interview (they were cool with it) and probably couldn’t carry on an adult conversation, but I went anyway. A week later, I got the best rejection letter of my life:
We didn’t pick you for our internship. But I really hope to receive an email from you one day that goes something like this:
“Yo Adam, I just wanted to let you know that I’m super successful now and you didn’t select me for an internship and you probably made a mistake. Right now I’m super successful doing _________________________. ”
He later told me that the reason they didn’t pick me for an internship was because they didn’t think I needed to be doing an internship. I needed to be working for myself.
A huge improvement from the literal 100+ job applications I sent out between 2011-2016!
If you’re in the creative and entrepreneurial spaces, you’re gonna face a lot of rejection. Sometimes it will be outright: you submit your work for publication or competitions and you don’t get chosen. Or you throw your hat into the ring for a client project or job and they choose someone else. Sometimes it will be subtle: you put an offer into the world, whether that’s a service, a webinar, an email list, and no one shows up. Ouch!
I’m not gonna lie: it stings. And honestly, it should. If getting rejected for something you did or made with care doesn’t hurt a little, then was it really worth doing? But don’t let the sting stop you.
I honed my rejection-coping skills teaching high school. Teenagers don’t like anything you put in front of them, let me assure you. I also learned how to deal with rejection vicariously through helping realtors sell houses. And, yes, five years of compulsive job hunting and online dating might have had something to do with my rejection resiliency. It does get (somewhat) easier with practice, but not because I’ve developed a particularly “thick skin” so that it doesn’t sting. It’s more like figuring out how to bounce back afterward. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way:
Every no is one step closer to a yes.
I actually said this fortune-cookie proverb to a frustrated home seller once. Mostly in an effort to keep him happy and not firing my boss (though she would have deserved it which is a story for another day), but it’s true. A “no” can be frustrating, but it’s up to you to get useful data out of it. Figure out why this opportunity wasn’t a good fit, and find a better one!
I don’t need anyone’s permission to show up with my work and take up space.
Pitch didn’t get a response? I’ll share it on my own blog. Podcast accelerator said no? I’ll record it myself. Traditional publications won’t hire me? I BUILD MY OWN MAGAZINES HAHAHA. Admittedly, my Taurus-Gemini cusp self does sometimes take this past the point of reason. But if no one invites you to the table, bring your own picnic blanket and dig in.
Say no before someone else can tell me no.
I don’t mean storming off in a huff declaring I never wanted to be in Oprah magazine ANYWAY. (I’ve never done this, I promise.) I just mean that sometimes rejection can be a sign that you’re going after the wrong thing. I was spinning my wheels trying to pitch publications for awhile, because you can’t get published without previous bylines but it’s hard to get bylines if you’ve…got no previous bylines. (Pssst – come write for Mochi!) Eventually I realized that external bylines earn me neither clients nor money in any significant way, so I’ve stopped pursuing those. (But also I BUILT MY OWN MAGAZINES HAHAHA.)
It might be tempting to cast a wide net with pitching your work or marketing to clients. But if “everyone,” is rejecting you, maybe that means your work isn’t really speaking to anyone. Ironically, trying to please everyone will generally result in not really satisfying anyone. It seems counterintuitive, but specializing and saying no to projects that weren’t a good fit actually allowed me to grow my business. I couldn’t get any traction for my email list or personal blog until I landed on helping unconventional, creative, and enterprising Asian Americans. Suddenly I had a very specific (and very familiar) audience to speak to, which makes showing up a lot easier. I was spinning my wheels as a jenn of all trades, master of none, until I settled into web design for nonprofits and corporate copywriting as my bread and butter. I know it seems scary to specialize (and a certain experimental laboratory phase is generally necessary), but it will definitely pay off.
If you’re not hearing “No,” on a regular basis, you risk getting stagnant in your art and business. (On the other hand, it’s also totally okay to save some time and effort by working with consistent, profitable clients and putting that energy into other areas of growth.) Rejection is never going to feel good. But kind of like working out, the soreness means that you’re getting stronger. Go flex those rejection muscles!