The 5 Myths of Rejection
In the early 1940s, there lived a woman by the name of Florence Foster Jenkins. She was a semi-famous opera singer in and around New York City. There was nothing particularly noteworthy about her. Except one thing.
Despite her fame and success, she was an absolutely dreadful singer.
Awful. Downright abysmal.
But here’s the thing about Florence; no one ever had the guts to tell her she was bad.
She thought she was brilliant. She thought she was one of the greatest voices of her generation. So she’d have these listening parties where she’d force her friends to come over and hear her sing, and they were all too scared to just tell her she was terrible. And so when she took her act public, she was actually so bad that people in the audience at her shows would roll around in the aisles, laughing hysterically at her. They’d go home and tell their friends about this hilariously bad singer, that they had to see her for themselves, and so more and more people started to come to her shows.
She became so famous -- or infamous -- that she was invited to play a show at Carnegie Hall in New York and she actually sold the place out. This was a huge deal. Carnegie Hall has hosted greats like Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington.
And when the night of the show came, Jenkins put on her greatest performance ever. Over the top singing. Bizarre costumes. Odd props. You name it. And the show was such a big spectacle that it attracted reviewers from all the major newspapers; only, when their columns came out the next day, the joke was over. They had a field day ripping into Florence and lambasting her singing.
Florence was in her 80s by then, and she died a week after the Carnegie Hall show. Some say she died of a broken heart after reading those brutal reviews.
A sad story? Maybe. But such a useful one for examining the concept of rejection in the creative world.
On the surface, it sounds like Florence Foster Jenkins could have used a dose of reality. And because no one ever told her she wasn’t good enough, she turned herself into this tragic laughing stock.
But it’s also a story of perseverance. Because Florence was raised by wealthy, aristocratic parents who raised her to be a proper lady. A housewife. Only, she decided she wanted something more. So she ran away from home and worked her hands to the bone, putting herself through music school and forcing her way into show business. And through all the laughing and all the roadblocks, she never gave up and never stopped believing in herself.
So, rejection is a complicated concept. It’s terrible, and it hurts, and you hope you don’t have to go through it. But in a creative career – writing, copywriting, design, marketing -- rejection is actually necessary. And, surprisingly, useful.
But only if you understand it.
MYTH #1: Rejection Is Harsh
Have you ever flirted with a stranger that was way out of your league? Or stopped someone on the street to ask for a big favor; like a ride or to break a large bill.
What usually happens?
Did the person scream at you to go away? Call you names like weirdo, loser, or freak? Did they humiliate you in front of the entire crowd?
People tend to look for the easiest way out of a situation. So they’ll smile. They’ll nod. And as soon as you leave a window open for them to eject from the conversation, they’ll be gone. They’ll make an excuse. They’ll say they’re in a hurry. Anything instead of just telling you to go away.
And whether you realize it or not, you just got rejected.
But if you believe this notion, and you’re not on guard for the polite letdown, you’re going to be unprepared for the challenges you’ll face on your way to a creative career.
Takeaway: At the other end of every resume you send, every pitch meeting, every deliverable, is a human being. And most human beings don’t want confrontation. They don’t want to hurt your feelings. You have to learn to recognize rejection in all its forms. You have to recognize that silence, polite letdowns, and all the “almost but not quites” are really all the same thing.
MYTH #2: Rejection Means You’re Not Good Enough
We’ve all heard the stories of famous or successful people that started their careers by being rejected.
There was the young journalist who got fired because his boss said he lacked imagination and had no good ideas. That person was Walt Disney. There was the aspiring singer who was told by a concert hall manager that he’d be better off keeping his job as a truck driver. That person was Elvis Presley. There’s the artist that spent years trying to get onto a major record label, then did, and was dropped within 3 months because the execs didn’t think she had star power. That person was Lady Gaga.
These stories aren’t rare. But that doesn’t make them any less surprising.
Once, a British writer and author named David Lassman decided to do an experiment. He sent off the opening chapters and plot synopses of several of Jane Austen’s best novels, Pride & Prejudice being one of them, with just some minor amendments to character names and locations, to a dozen or so of the biggest book publishers in the world. Every single one of them turned the work down, with only one or two actually recognizing the words as Jane Austen’s.
It’s bizarre. It’s hard to comprehend. But what’s happening here is this: people have a hard time recognizing greatness without context. Without millions of screaming fans in the concert hall that day, maybe Elvis didn’t sound so hot. Without the sticker on the front of Pride & Prejudice telling you it’s a classic, maybe it comes off a little bit dry or wordy in the first few pages.
Understand that you and your creative work are often being judged on a small sample size. A brief first impression. And you’re often not going to know the reasons for the rejection. Maybe the reviewer was overwhelmed with other work. Maybe he was in a bad mood. Maybe you never got a fair shot to begin with.
Or maybe, just maybe, the doubters are just wrong about you.
Takeaway: You can’t let rejection, or the fear of rejection, stop you from doing anything. You have to learn to be okay with it and keep trudging forward. You have to believe in yourself. Because everyone who has ever been great at anything was, at some point, told by someone, that they weren’t good enough (even Jane Austen and Walt Disney). The greats didn’t listen. And neither should you.
MYTH #3: Rejection Doesn’t Mean You’re Not Good Enough
So the above is all well and good. But it wouldn’t be a good thing to go through life just thinking everyone is wrong about you all the time.
When you’re rejected, you have to use it as an opportunity to improve yourself or your work. Here’s an example:
In 2005, Aaron Rodgers (QB, Cal) was one of the two most highly touted NFL draft prospects in the country. He had all the physical tools of a franchise quarterback. He had the college production. He had everything. And the team at the top of the draft, the San Francisco 49ers, were reportedly torn between Rodgers and Utah quarterback Alex Smith with the #1 overall pick.
As the draft approached, though, rumblings started to surface. Rumors. Concerns. Anonymous scouts were worried that Rodgers was too cocky. He was a “system quarterback” who’d never be able to run an NFL scheme. He had a bizarre throwing motion.
If you follow football, you know what happens next. The 49ers took Alex Smith with the first pick, and Aaron Rodgers slid. And slid and slid and slid; all the way to the 24th pick where the Packers finally selected him. Rodgers sat in the green room at Radio City Music Hall for hours during the draft, looking completely stunned.
Rodgers joined the Packers with an enormous score to settle. So what did he do? Well, to start, he didn’t become an egomaniac. He went to work on his game. He fixed that funky throwing motion (today, he has one of the quickest and most compact releases in the game). He mastered his offense. He learned everything he could.
And he became a champion.
But here’s the catch. No one’s going to do this for you. You’re not going to sit behind Brett Favre and learn your trade the way Rodgers did. You’re not going to be surrounded by an organization pouring all of its resources into making you great.
It’s going to have to come from you. You’re going to have to decide, for yourself, when you or your work being rejected is a fluke, and when it’s indicative of something you need to fix.
Takeaway: Greatness falls on you. You have to seek constructive feedback where you can and use what little you can get to become better. No one is going to hand it to you, or lay out a plan for you. When you’re not getting the results you expect, eventually you need to look inward and start to figure out if there’s more you need to do.
MYTH #4: Rejection Ends
At no point do you ever overcome the risk of rejection. There’s no title, no salary, no position anywhere in the world that can protect you from having your work or your credentials criticized.
In a creative field, like marketing, it’s something you’ll have to deal with every day.
You’re going to get your ideas and work shot down by clients. If you’re in PR, you’ll have your pitches ignored and you’ll get rude responses. You’ll have your writing picked apart. Your campaign ideas tossed aside. Your designs critiqued.
And all of the above will still apply. The feedback will often be sparse or aloof. Sometimes, you’ll get turned down because your work wasn’t good enough. Other times, you’ll know it’s good and it will go unappreciated. And other times, still, you won’t know the difference.
The catch is that, when people start paying you for your creative work, you no longer have the option of ignoring rejection. You can’t just say, they’re wrong. You have to stare it right in the face and find a way to do better the next time.
Takeaway: The sooner you get comfortable with the idea of being rejected, the better off you’ll be in your career. Put in the time, and the pain, of developing these skills early on. They will serve you well for a very, very long time.
MYTH #5: Rejection Is the Same as Failure
This can all be a little confusing when you put it together.
Rejection means nothing – except when it does. Always believe in yourself – except when you shouldn’t.
But you know what? It’s okay to be confused.
Rejection is a messy concept. Even though you may know intellectually that you shouldn’t let it stop you, it will still hurt. It will still sting.
For those moments, remember that rejection is not the same as failure. It doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. It doesn’t mean you won’t achieve your goals; whether that’s getting a job, getting a promotion, or pitching a big campaign.
It just means you aren’t there yet.
Takeaway: Rejection means you’re doing something right. You’re reading this because you have a desire to do fast paced, exciting, creative work. And there’s risk involved in that. What’s important is that you continue to chase that goal when others quit. Because when things get tough, many people will fold. Getting rejected is a sign that you’re doing something many people don’t have the courage to do.
Where to Go From Here
Let’s briefly go back to Florence Foster Jenkins again. The terrible opera singer.
Now, some people subscribe to the theory that she knew she was a horrible singer and intentionally played it up. That she was playing a character for the audience. And that might have been true. But by all accounts there’s no record of her ever admitting that she was anything but a world-class talent.
But she did say something once that I think is extremely powerful. She said:
“People may say I can’t sing. But no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
So feel free to forget everything you just read. Because whether you handle rejection well, or not, you’re not going to let it stop you. You’re going to continue to put yourself out there, and you’re never going to stop working hard to do all the things you’ve always wanted to do.
No matter how many people tell you, “No.”