“We all learn lessons in life. Some stick, some don’t. I have always learned more from rejection and failure than from acceptance and success.” -Henry Rollins
Rejection. It is, I’m sorry to say, inevitable. In fact, for most artists, particularly in the early stages of their careers, rejection is a much more frequent companion than success. Everybody surely knows some story or another about a famous person who was soundly rejected early in their career. J.K. Rowling’s now famous no thank yous from no fewer than 12 publishers along with the helpful advice that she not quit her day job. Walt Disney’s dismissal from the Kansas City Star for his lack of imagination. Andy Warhol’s rejection letter from MoMA when he tried to donate a drawing in the 1950s. No one is immune. Rejection is an ever present and necessary part of life.
As a professional, you need to internalize this unfortunate component of the landscape. It is imperative to your artistic survival that you develop ways of coping with the rejection that will greet you again and again.
What all the famous people listed above have in common is not simply that they were rejected early in their careers, each and every one of them refused to let that not be the final answer. This is one of the most important keys to dealing with rejection when it comes. Recognizing that it is nothing more than the opinion of one small group in a world of others. One moment in the long march of time. Not an insurmountable wall, but a minor obstacle to be overcome and moved on from.
When facing rejection, allow yourself to feel all of the emotions that come along with it. You may feel sad or angry, upset that you bore your heart and soul only to have them handed back in a polite form letter. Give yourself a little time to grieve and treat yourself with kindness but do not wallow in this aftermath.
Reframe things to put rejection in perspective. Perhaps you have had success on a local or regional level and have put yourself out into the wider world only to be shot down on your first attempt. Let this be evidence that you are pushing the envelope. You are primed to bloom out further, and these minor setbacks are nothing more than bumps along the way. While you may be a big fish in a little pond, there is a whole sea out there waiting to be explored. There are bound to be risks but they are absolutely worth taking.
Take time to learn from rejection. If feedback was provided, be sure you take it to heart. Do not read constructive criticism as hostility toward you or your work. Be brave and open to change. No one can exist in a static state, change is necessary and healthy in order for your career to advance. Be open to the opinions of others. Staying staunchly set in your ways isn’t going to accomplish much other than eternal frustration.
Go into every situation armed as best you can against rejection. If you are applying for a grant, read your application over thoroughly. Then read it again. Follow instructions to a t. Give yourself the best chance possible. Pay attention to word counts, answer questions clearly and succinctly, and resist the temptation to veer off the path. Grant selection committees have far too many applications to consider to take the time reading extraneous information.
The same goes for galleries. If you are an abstract painter, it makes little sense to reach out to a gallery known for representational work. Don’t send images of your sculpture to an establishment that has built a reputation selling drawings. While there is never any guarantee, stacking the deck in your favor as much as possible before you even begin is a good way to minimize the risk of rejection. At the very least, you may come out with sound advice from people who know your field well.
After rejection, it is very important to move on. If you don’t have other opportunities already lined up, make sure you do your footwork and find them. Don’t just apply to one grant, residency, gallery, job–apply to dozens. Keep at it. Don’t take no for an answer. Move on to the next opportunity and the next. Believe that others before you have only succeeded because of their willingness to tenaciously pursue their goals in the face of countless rejections. Read stories of artists you know and love who faced adversity early in their careers.
Under no circumstances should you ever let rejection define you. Give yourself a little time to move past the initial emotions. As with all things, over time rejection will become a regular part of your day to day. As normal as the successes. Define yourself by those and let the rejections teach you what they may before you move along.