I was recently interviewed by my friend Laura Bond Williams for an article in a local magazine. One of the questions she asked was something along the lines of, “how do you deal with rejection of your work?”
I’ve tried a lot of highly experimental ideas with my projects over the years and have experienced rejection from much of it. That’s just the nature of doing new things. I’m not sure you ever “get used to it”. It always stings.
But for some people, rejection of their work is completely debilitating.
There’s different ways to keep rejection of your work from becoming existential crisis.
Reactive Solutions to Rejection
There’s the reactive solutions to help get perspective. Since the current rejection will always seem worse than it is because it’s fresher and more salient you can:
- Remember your successes to see that this rejection isn’t your whole life.
- Remember that you’ve been rejected before and you know the sting fades over time.
But these solutions don’t come out of the box until you’ve been rejected. It can take a lot of strength to apply these when you’re dealing with the pain of rejection.
Here’s another way to deal with it that I don’t hear enough about.
A Proactive Solution to Rejection
There’s a way you can frame the situation before you begin your work that will help you in the event that your work is rejected.
I’m not talking about going into it with an attitude of “I don’t really care about this, them, whatever anyway” in a sort of pre-emptive strike against possible rejection. That attitude is not going to bring out your best work.
I’m talking about my favorite Venn diagram.
One circle contains everything that you want to do and the other circle contains everything that the world wants done. The overlap is where the magic really happens and you do your best work.
(There’s a lot to be said about the benefits of the overlap, but I’m limiting the discussion to just the benefits of dealing with rejection.)
When we work in our own circle, we’re doing the work we want to do. It’s our work, it’s our soul, it’s a reflection of our being. It’s personal.
When we work in the world’s circle, we’re doing work the world wants done and serving the world. But if it’s purely the work that the world wants and we don’t want to be doing it (because it doesn’t also land in our circle), then it can be a very very long slog.
When we work in the overlap of the circles, our work meets both the needs of ourselves and the world.
So how does this idea help with rejection?
Let’s say you present your work to the world and the world says, “That’s terrible!”.
Ugh. No one likes to hear that.
If you’ve been working only in your personal circle, it’s natural to take this rejection very very personally. It’s your personal circle, after all! You followed your dreams and wants and the world said “We don’t want that. Get that out of here.” This can be extremely discouraging, even devastating. It’s like watching someone puke on your memoir.
If you’ve been working only in the world’s circle, rejection doesn’t really matter to you because you didn’t care about the work anyways. You’ll successfully avoid the sting of rejection, but who wants to do work they don’t care about?
What if instead you had set out to work in the overlap? How would that have played out?
You’re aiming for the overlap… trying to do work that the world wants done… and you that you want to do. It’s personal work but it’s also the work the world needs. You deliver it to the world… and the world says, “Rejection!”
Now, instead of feeling personally rejected, you could conclude that the work you didn’t land in the overlap after all.
If you’ve been working in the magical overlap, the rejection is never about you or them. It is about your aim. You were aiming for the magic overlap, but turns out you missed. Maybe the work you did was still only in your personal circle. Or maybe it was outside of both circles – you did something neither you nor the world wanted done.
If you understand that what’s being rejected is really your aim then it isn’t about some inherent flaw in you or about how the world is a jerk.
You just have to work on your aim.
You can try again.
You Are Not Your Work
When you only work in your circle, the ideas of “you” and “your work” can start feeling like one and the same.
When you aim for the overlap, you are mindful of two circles and two sets of needs. The “you” is what you want to do. And the “work” is what the world receives. If the world rejects your work, they aren’t rejecting you.
When you see things through this lens, it gives you the option to meet rejection like this:
“Oh, well I guess that wasn’t working for you, let’s try something else.”
You keep your power, agency, and sense of self-worth.
If you are aiming to serve and contribute to the world, you realize that when they reject you they are just rejecting your idea, your product, your service, or whatever else it is you are offering. But they aren’t rejecting you. Chances are they don’t even know you. (I’ve basically stolen this paragraph from Seth Godin. Read his much more to the point post here. While you’re there, read ALL his posts.)
Footnote: It’s also possible that your offer has been rejected due to the circumstances surrounding the presentation of the offer or the presentation techniques and strategy used in presenting the offer. It’s possible a better situation and/or approach would make the offer more compelling. The presentation of the offer must also land in the overlap.