Dealing with Rejection

Don't tell me to stop
Tell the rain not to drop
Tell the wind not to blow
Cause you said so.
Madonna, "Don't Tell Me"


Everybody's a critic. It's much easier to point out what's wrong with something than to create the thing to begin with. Reviewers, from grants committees to hiring managers to publishers, get used to being in a position of extraordinary privilege. Their personal opinion determines whether others' labors of love become reality. 

As someone who has been on both sides of that interaction, I'm here to remind you of one simple truth: The critics are always wrong. 

Earlier today, Distractify published an inspiring set of rejections given to some of the most successful creators of our time. Madonna "wasn't ready yet." TIm Burton's work was "derivative." Walt Disney "lacked imagination and had no good ideas." Thankfully, none of these visionaries let rejection stop them. 

I know how difficult it is to get negative feedback and move on. I need at least three hands to count the number of projects I started to work on with passion and then let go of the moment someone criticized me. The more I respected that person, the quicker I collapsed.

In the past year, I have watched at least four projects that were eerily similar to the ones I started achieve success. This tells me something: While my execution may not yet have been strong enough, there was nothing wrong with the idea. Had I kept going, that success could very well have been mine. But I removed that possibility, because I didn't see those projects through. I let other people convince me to give up. 

That doesn't mean that those of us who encounter failure are misunderstood geniuses who have the right to be upset with the world for not embracing our ideas. It simply means one of these three things applies:

  1. You haven't yet found the right audience. Even the greatest works of history have their naysayers. I guarantee you there is somebody out there who will love what you are doing, but it's up to you to find them, not the other way around. 
  2. Your work isn't quite there yet. Not fun to hear, is it? But the operative word is "yet": You simply haven't made it to the finished project. You get there only by exposing your draft versions to people and having the confidence to keep going when the feedback isn't great. (I mean, look at what this team went through on their way to Oculus Rift.)
  3. They can't see what you see. When something exists only in your imagination, you can't expect support. Funders, employers, publishers, and people in general are pretty risk-averse. Until you prove that your work is innovative/profitable/popular, most people will not get behind you.

Now, discrimination is a real thing. Plenty of great people are ignored because they don't fit pre-established criteria. I am not saying that this is fair. It isn't. But it's changed only when you keep pursuing your dreams. There is always someone out there who will look past your race, gender, or economic status when you give them the chance to do so.

So, if you are having trouble with the job search, or your proposal keeps getting rejected, or your friends and family think your art is weird, keep going. Ignore the voices that tell you to move in a direction that's inconsistent with your passions, or to give up because you don't fit the profile. Find editors and advisors who move beyond criticism to help you reach your goal. Surround yourself with people who have your back, even when no one can see what's in front of you. 

Then channel your inner Madonna and press on. 


Recently, I've helped authors prepare their work for publication in Foreign Policy, Huffington Post, and other national publications. If you're looking for the kind of editor who will help you overcome rejection on your own terms, you can contact me here