No one navigates a career without facing a few disappointments in their professional life. Conventional wisdom says that failure provides opportunities for growth, but that’s little comfort with the sting of rejection still ringing in your ears.
What’s really haunting and universal about this experience isn’t necessarily the missed goal or the door slammed in your face, but the self-doubt that lingers in its wake. On a professional level, we all know occasional failures are part of the job, but privately it often leaves you wondering: What’s wrong with me?
There are dozens of ways rejection can get under your skin, depending on the circumstances. For me, as the oldest child and something of a perfectionist, I excelled in many of my initial ventures. But when I changed tracks and started to pursue creative writing, suddenly the work I was putting out was a hell of a lot more personal.
After attending a six week residential experience, Odyssey Writing Workshop, my inspiration was high and the words were flying onto the page. I gathered my scenes, summarized the story, and found another course designed specifically for first-time novelists. When their response arrived, rejecting my application, self-doubt and criticism threatened to derail my creative expression.
I knew my writing lacked structure and organization, and I was willing to consider anything that might help me create an enjoyable story. The letter declining my admission to the novel program was brief and to the point—I was “too far along” with my work-in-progress, and the instructor assumed I wouldn’t be amenable to making the necessary changes to improve it. As the course I’d been counting on evaporated, so did my motivation to write.
Instead of hearing the characters’ voices in my head, I was left with echoes of doubt and insecurity about my abilities. I wondered if my ideas were worth developing. I felt hopeless, unable to type myself out of plot holes or brainstorm new directions. There was also the embarrassment of having to tell people I hadn’t been accepted—my friends, family, and writer’s group, all of whom had supported me. My dear husband had even requested over two weeks of vacation to mind the kids, so that I could attend.
I fell into the common trap of taking a professional rejection personally. I made it less about my work and more about me. I re-read the letter repeatedly, searching for what went wrong, letting the simple words cut deeper and deeper.
A project you didn’t get assigned, a lack-luster performance review, a subtle snub from your boss, or a canned response from an institution saying you weren’t qualified enough for admission…
Or did you bury your disappointment in a pint of ice cream or a couple glasses of wine? Perhaps you complained about the person or institution involved—couldn’t they see your brilliance? Okay, maybe that’s just me, but I bet a few others have been there too.
We all process rejection in different ways, but here are a few attitudes to adopt in order to avoid the slip from disappointment to dejection to depression.
Any effort of importance requires an emotional investment. When things don’t work out, it’s impossible to shut out the frustration. Instead, allow yourself to grieve the loss of something that mattered to you. While your hoped for contribution wasn’t accepted, remember that your worth as a person isn’t lacking—you are still capable and deserving of success.
No one gets through life without a few hiccups. Yes, some have an easier time, but we all face obstacles and doors that are closed to us. Be willing to admit that rejection does happen, and that you will likely face it many times before reaching your ultimate goals.
Look at a particular failure less as a stumbling block and more as an opportunity for improvement. Each time you face a let down, you strengthen your determination to get back up and try again, stronger and wiser. Keep moving forward with grit and tenacity, until you succeed.
Start by asking Why? Not the self-pitying Why me? Rather, search for any clues that might help develop your next achievement…
Rejection occurs for any number of reasons—we can do everything right but still not be recognized simply because we’re not the best fit for the occasion, or project, or team. Focus on things within your realm of control, places where you could take action next time to better meet their needs or show your qualifications.
It’s easy to come up with the external truths behind your rejection, but don’t neglect to look within. Were you going after something you truly wanted, or was it just an expected step for your career? Empower yourself to keep putting your work out there by making sure you’re clear on what you’re going after and why it matters.
Finally, take a break from the mental and emotional upheaval that follows in the wake of a rejection. Pick whatever time span is necessary and reasonable to shake off your doubts, and then turn your attention elsewhere. Ask what comes next—leaving failures in the past works best when you have something to focus on moving towards. Find a promising SMALL STEP!
Consider a recent professional rejection you’ve faced. Start with something small, especially if you’re still feeling somewhat vulnerable about it. For now, stick with something career or work related, because personal rejections are a lot more complicated.
Take your time thinking through the steps above, considering your rejection in a new light. What one SMALL STEP can you take to change how you perceive your disappointment? Plan your micro-action and use it to fuel your motivation and release any mental or emotional baggage.
After failing to earn admission into the novel program, I knew I needed time for some serious soul-searching. Thankfully, my husband agreed to watch the kids during his time off while I retreated to the seaside to nurse my wounds. I spent a week walking the beaches, journaling, and asking questions about which direction I should take my writing.
I realized my novel idea (stalled at 57,000 words) maybe hadn’t been the ideal fit for the workshop I’d chosen. However, that didn’t mean it was time to throw in the towel! Perhaps I needed to practice story structure at shorter lengths first. So I committed my creative direction to shorter fiction, and signed up for a series of amazing online workshops at Odyssey. I started producing short stories that were easier to manage as a beginning writer, and regained my determination to develop my skills.
I turned my dismissal into an opportunity for growth—by learning to move sideways when a roadblock sprang up. And I made the commitment to never give up.
As it turns out, that initial rejection has served me well into the future. I’m continuing to create fiction and am submitting my work to publishing markets—which brings even more inevitable rejections. I’ve accepted this part of being an author, though, and I’m still writing, chasing success one story at a time.
In what ways have you been able to view professional disappointments in a new light?
What opportunities for growth are hidden beneath the rejections, once you discover how to question them?