On Handling Rejection

I wrote this for The Pool a couple of years ago but of course it's now disappeared so I'm sharing it here as someone was asking for tips on handling rejection.

When I was 10 years old, I desperately wanted the lead role in the school production. It was a musical about a school trip into outer space, and I was convinced it was my destiny to play the singing headmistress leading her pupils on an intergalactic odyssey. I rehearsed my audition speech and practiced my step-ball-change for weeks. But when the casting announcement was posted on the classroom notice board, I found out that I hadn’t got the role. I’d been given a bit part as an alien instead.

Rejection hurts. I should know: I’ve experienced a lot of it. As a writer and arts professional, getting regularly turned down for stuff is practically obligatory. I’ve been refused grants by nearly every major funding body in the country; name a theatre, and I’ve probably received some form of polite decline from it. Early in my career, this bothered me, a lot. My peers seemed to be ascending to the tops of their chosen fields effortlessly – landing promotions, academic prizes and artistic commissions - while I was left languishing in a pile of ripped SAEs and returned play scripts. As I scrolled through photos on Facebook of acquaintances clutching awards and quaffing champagne, it was easy to believe that success was something that either came to you – or, in my case, didn’t.

We don’t tend to brag about rejection after all, but perhaps it’s something we need to talk about more. Look at the careers of some of the most successful people alive today, and it’s clear that rejection has been a crucial part of their trajectory. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was famously declined by 12 separate publishing houses before JK Rowling found a book deal; Meryl Streep was told she was ‘too ugly’ to star in King Kong. Almost everyone experiences disappointments in life. What distinguishes these brilliant women is the fact that they kept going. The secret of Rowling’s success is that she made that 13th submission, when so many would have given up after one rejection, or three, or ten. How easily Streep might have been derailed by the unkind comments of one idiot producer; instead, she saw it as a reason to persevere, and went on to achieve the most spectacular revenge ever by winning three Academy Awards and receiving a record breaking 21 nominations.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was to aim for 100 rejections a year, and to let the successes take care of themselves. When you reframe your approach in this way – whether you’re an artist or an entrepreneur or a marketing exec - it removes a huge amount of anxiety. After all, a rejection is an outcome almost anyone can achieve.Anyone, that is, who is willing to throw their hat in the ring. In Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg quoted a report which found that men apply for jobs when they believe they meet 60% of the requirements, whereas women only apply when they believe they meet 100% of them. This has been credited as an explanation for why men tend to be promoted more swiftly than women. While I think there are all sorts of reasons for this that have little to do with women’s more reticent approach to job applications and a lot to do with ingrained misogyny, there’s nonetheless something to be said for taking a risk and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. If US presidents aren’t letting their woeful lack of experience hold them back, why should we?

Besides, rejection can teach you all kinds of useful stuff. After getting successive knockbacks as a playwright, I decided a few years ago to try something new and landed my first commission as a nonfiction writer – now, that’s all I write, and I’ve just had my first book published. I’ve learnt the importance of reading guidelines properly; how to walk the fine line between passionate and pushy; who gets me, and who just never will. In many ways, rejection can actually be more helpful to personal progress than success.

A happy side effect of collecting rejections, it turns out, is that sometimes you land successes too. I may have been turned down by most of the major funding bodies in the country, but by learning from their feedback and honing my approach, I’ve now received grants from a lot of them. I recently landed a spot on a residency programme I thought I had no chance in hell of getting; I’d submitted a hasty application simply to tick it off my list, and was surprised and delighted to be invited to take up a place. Now, while I may not quite be able to revel in my rejections, I can at least be a little sanguine about them. Because I’ve learnt that getting turned down for something is just a step closer to the shot that will be successful. And that’s something to celebrate.

As for my portrayal of an alien back in 1994? Oscar-worthy. I absolutely smashed it. Ultimately, it sometimes takes a rejection to realise what path you should really be following. Even if it does involve donning a pair of sequinned deeley-boppers, painting your face green, and doing jazz hands like your life depended on it.

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