"A rejection is nothing more than a necessary step in the direction of success."
"Rejection is a challenge."
"Rejection gives you more power to push forward."
If you linked the number of faux-inspirational phrases about how to turn rejection into a positive thing, you could probably make it to the moon and back. It's become fashionable to start networking conversations with strangers about how many times you have failed. Failure is not the same as rejection. You might fail to do 10 squats in the gym but you can try again tomorrow. Rejection is the instructor telling you you’re too unfit to work with and he won’t even dignify the situation by taking you on as a client. Rejection stings, while failure can be motivational.
Rejection stings, while failure can be motivational
I am a rejection junkie. Since I started writing plays, I’ve received a rejection email on average once a day. Glass-half-full types high-five me and say: "Yes! That means you’re trying! Keep at it!" The rest of the world says: "Probably just stop."
When I started out in journalism many moons ago, I would send out a pitch, chase three times for a reply and then finally get a solitary "no". At least in theatre, writers often get a rambling response: "Sorry we felt the play didn’t have enough sharks in it, and as a pro-shark organisation we are sorry blah blah blah..."
My favourite thing is being rejected by companies I don’t remember submitting to months and months later, because by that point I don’t care. The other week I was rejected by two theatre companies in one day, one at 06:45 and the other at 21:32. Once, after being shortlisted, I was rejected from the Royal Court Writers Group at nearly midnight on a Friday. I was drunk and confused, and it’s fair to say it bummed me out. I mean, c’mon guys.
Most creatives accept that rejection is a way of life, but should we stop always dressing it up as a positive thing? When, if ever, is it the right time to listen to rejection and accept maybe we’re just not good at something? Is pure self-belief enough to drive a career?
I networked and worked my ass off, but I was rejected all the time
Laura* now works for the NHS, but for seven years she tried to make acting work. "It still hurts to admit it, to be honest," she says. "But I realised I probably wasn’t good enough. I went to a mid-level drama school in a world where these things matter and I did bit-parts, extra work, unpaid Fringe work. I networked and worked my ass off, but I was rejected all the time. I think in total, in seven years, I earned about £500 quid from acting and made the rest of my money from working in a bar."
She says she was "embarrassed" that she failed and gave up, but it was important she did. "Rejection was destroying my mental health. I felt worthless, and I realised I was keeping going because that’s what I’d always done, like I owed it to myself and all the work I’d put in over time. I was happy, eventually, to be out."
Rejection, whether for your dream job or by a person you thought fancied you but actually hated you, hurts. Studies show that the same neural pathways become activated when we experience rejection as when we feel physical pain. Scientists think we react so strongly to rejection today because it served a vital function in our evolutionary past; if we were rejected by our tribe we would struggle to survive, so we began to experience rejection more acutely to help us notice when we needed to pull up our socks to re-ingratiate ourselves.
Rejection can trigger feelings of shame ('Why did I bother?') and humiliation ('God, I must have been really terrible'). We like ourselves less after rejection, so should we really pay attention to all of these inspirational articles about 'getting rejected in order to succeed'?
It is how we are taught to cope or manage rejection that will determine our mental strength in the long term
"Everyone learns about rejection by experiencing it directly in some form and then coping with it, i.e. exam results, job applications, relationships," says Joy Scholes, director at Greenacre CBT and a CBT therapist with over 10 years’ experience. "Everyone needs to experience rejection but also learn how to manage and cope with that experience for the next time. Avoiding it completely would not be good for anyone’s mental health. In essence, it is how we are taught to cope or manage rejection that will determine our mental strength in the long term."
Keeping going is helpful, up to a point. If we all gave up the second we were rejected by something that mattered, we’d probably be setting ourselves up for a life of misery. But while pushing and being resilient is important, rejection can also teach us that maybe we’re not suited to doing something after all.
Jacqui Rose tried being a stand-up comedian before concluding it wasn’t for her and instead became a bestselling author. "I went [to a stand up night] along with a couple of pals and decided to go for it. Armed with a scruffy piece of paper with my notes on, I stood up in front of all of five people and rambled my way through my set. I did get a laugh, but stupidly, I didn’t realise the laugh was coming from my supportive friends and the five or six drunk people at the back."
She recounts how at another gig she stood in front of a large crowd and died. "A person from the crowd shouted something along the lines of, 'Come on we’re here to see comedy not to watch a wake.' After I’d muttered my way through, I hurried off only to hear the compere say, 'Give her a hand of applause, this was her dying wish!'"
She explains how she gave up comedy because she "wasn’t funny!" She says: "And I hated it, because I wasn’t wrapped up in the security of a character, I was being me. But do I regret it? No way. Would I do it again? No way."
One or two rejections can be dismissed as subjectivity. They’re clearly wrong and you’re great. End of. But after 29 rejections for all the plays, short plays, monologues and competition entries you’ve ever submitted, doubts begin to grow. What keeps me going is that one person in 50 will say they love your work. And maybe it’s dumb and misguided, but that one person keeps you going until the moment you can’t afford to eat because you spent your last penny investing in your passion.
Chris Ogle, business development manager at Flow Digital Agency, says: "Constant rejection from a promotion or new job hurts, and often the reasons are not always what you'd expect. [As a recruiter] you receive a CV which is poorly formatted, has irrelevant career history or is just downright boring. It's rejected and often no feedback is given. The candidate applies and applies and gets nowhere.
"Instead of just accepting rejection, try to find the real reasons behind what's going on," he advises. "Try something like 'I've experienced quite a bit of rejection recently and I would like your honest opinion as to where I'm falling short, feel free to be blunt'. This tells the decision maker that you’re ready for honest feedback that can actually have a positive impact on your career."
Blind passion isn’t positive, nor is blind self-belief, but if what you do makes you happy, and the rejections aren’t too crippling, keep going. Because that’s what I’m going to do in theatre until someone pulls me aside, probably after one too many white wines, and says: "Look, mate, you’re rubbish. Stop deluding yourself. You can’t write. There aren’t enough sea creatures in your work, and you’ll just never get anywhere without those, so have another drink, and just stop."