If you visit one of the major Zen temples in Japan, either side of the main gateway you will see two large demonic-looking figures glaring at you.
These Nio statues are guardians of the Buddha. On the left stands Misshaku Kongō, mouthing the syllable ‘ah’ (equivalent to Western ‘alpha’, ‘birth’); on the right stands Naraen Kongō, making the sound ‘un’ (‘omega’, ‘death’).
According to Zen priest Steve Hagen, they represent Paradox and Confusion, which all spiritual seekers have to overcome in their quest for Truth. To enter the temple, you need to walk straight between them.
When you set out on your creative career, you face a similar challenge: in order to realise your ambitions, you’ll need to deal with the twin spectres of Rejection and Criticism.
Now logically, neither of these things can hurt you — they are no more life-threatening than a couple of painted statues. But when you stand naked before them, and feel their eyes pierce to your very soul, you’ll understand why so many have turned back, and abandoned their ambitions rather than endure their pitiless gaze.
So why does it hurt so much to have your work rejected, or torn to shreds by a critic? Because creative people identify with their work. To you, work is not just a job, and the result is not a ‘product’ – it’s a part of you. Or as Flaubert put it more poetically:
A book is essentially organic, part of ourselves. We tear a length of gut from our bellies and serve it up.
~ Gustave Flaubert
This is why you flinch when the envelope comes through your letterbox, or the email you’ve been dreading lands in your inbox, or the phone rings and you know you’re about to learn your fate.
This is why it hurts — physically — when you fail to land that job, or that part, or that contract. Or when a reviewer trashes your work. Or when someone whose opinion you respect damns it with faint praise. You put your heart and soul into your work, so any judgment on the work feels like a judgment on you.
It takes courage to face up to rejection and criticism and keep going. But if you can do it, the rewards are potentially enormous. At the very least, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you didn’t back down out of fear, but faced up to the test.
Rejection is when someone says ‘no’ to you or your work. You don’t get the part — or the job, or the book deal, or the recording contract, or whatever it was you’d set your heart on.
Sometimes rejection comes hand-in-hand with criticism — you get some feedback from the editor, casting director, interviewer or whoever the gatekeeper is. But often rejection is made even harder because you don’t get any feedback. The answer is ‘no’ but you don’t know why.
And occasionally, you don’t get an answer at all. This is probably the biggest kick in the teeth — it means the gatekeeper was too busy, or too lazy, or even too embarrassed or scared to tell you the bad news. (So when it’s your turn to reject someone, remember how this felt — at least give them the courtesy of an answer.)
So how can you deal with rejection?
Realise it’s normal
Everybody gets rejected. Even the best of the best. In fact, it’s possible that the best get rejected even more than the rest of us — because they put themselves out there more, take more chances and pursue more opportunities. If you don’t believe me, have a look at this list of 20 Brilliant Authors Whose Work Was Initially Rejected. Whatever your creative medium, you could probably compile a similar list of superstars who persisted in the face of rejection.
Play the numbers game
Sadly, not everyone is going to love your work. But the more you put it out there, the more chances you have of finding the people who do love it. I’m not saying it’s a complete lottery — if your work isn’t good enough, it doesn’t matter how many people you send it to, so make sure you’re getting some quality feedback (see Lesson 4). But even when it’s good, you sometimes have to knock on lots of doors before you’ll find someone willing to give you a chance.
Get used to it
I don’t mean that in a hard way. I just mean it’s something you’ll have to get used to. In a way, it’s a good thing that rejection hurts — it shows you care about your work, that you’re putting your heart and soul into it. If it stopped hurting, it would mean you had stopped caring.
But over time, the sting does get less sharp. Psychologists call this acclimatisation, and it’s the basis of behavioural therapy for phobias. By repeatedly exposing yourself to the source of your fear (spiders, lifts, public speaking, heights etc), you learn to tolerate it a little better each time. So the more auditions you go to, the more rejections you’ll get — but the less it should hurt each time. Especially when the rejections start to become diluted by acceptances. 🙂
Everything has a price
If this were easy, everyone would do it. But everything has a price. When you accept that rejection is just an occupational hazard, you start paying that price.
It’s not how many times you get knocked down; it’s how many times you get back up.
~ Attributed to General George Armstrong Custer
We’ve already touched on this back in Lesson 4, when we looked at making good use of constructive criticism. Now, I’m going to focus on how to deal with destructive criticism, as well as negative critical judgments — i.e. criticism that isn’t destructive, but isn’t what you want to hear either!
A lot of what I said about rejection applies to criticism too — anyone who’s ever done anything remarkable has had to put up with it, and get used to it. It’s part of the price you pay for success. And in a way, it should hurt — if it didn’t, it would mean you had stopped putting yourself into your work, which would mean the critics had won.
Before deciding what to do about the criticism, consider where it’s coming from. Here are some of the usual sources:
These people get a kick out of making nasty, offensive and abusive comments. Most of them don’t have the guts to criticise you to your face, so they are particularly common on the internet, where they are known as trolls. They are a tiny minority, but a vocal one.
It’s generally best to just ignore them. I’ve occasionally received an embarrassed apology when I’ve replied to an abusive comment or email, but most of them aren’t interested in dialogue.
The peanut gallery
This is the term my friend Sonia Simone uses for all the people who have an opinion on your work, but who are irrelevant to your goals. They include the nit-pickers and yes-butters who will always find a flaw in your argument, and the well-intentioned nice people who keep asking you to do something different, even though you’re not remotely interested in doing it. Sonia recommends ignoring these people too. You can be polite to them, and make a brief reply, but don’t take them too seriously.
I’m not a big fan of Henry James’s novels, but even I had to feel sorry for him when I heard a story about him being booed off stage by the public at the premiere of one of his plays. There’s no humiliation like a public humiliation.
How seriously you take the public’s opinion will depend on what business you’re in. If you’re the editor of a national newspaper, or commissioning a piece of public art, you will probably pay more attention to them than if you’re an avant-garde poet or creator of fine art that only the richest of the rich can afford. If you’re in a punk band, it would probably be downright embarrassing to discover everybody and their grandmother loved tapping their feet and singing along to your songs.
So forget the public — and decide who your public is. Once you know who they are, then you can start worrying about what they think of you.
There are basically two kinds of critics: the ones who ‘get’ what you’re trying to do; and the ones who don’t. Pay more attention to the former than the latter. And learn about the art of criticism — it’s amazing how poorly written many reviews are, even by professional reviewers in respected journals. Once you can identify a critic’s criteria, it will be easier to decide how much you value their judgments.
But don’t be too quick to criticise the critics. Sometimes they tell us just what we need to hear, even if we don’t want to hear it.
The obvious thing to watch out for here is rivalry. Are they delivering an impartial judgment, or are they just trying to take you down a peg or two? Often, it’s a bit of both. And maybe that’s no bad thing — creative tensions have been at the heart of many artistic partnerships and friendships (Wordsworth and Coleridge, Kahlo and Rivera, Lennon and McCartney).
One thing your peers can offer you that no one else can — the perspective of someone in a situation very similar to yours.
If you’re lucky enough to have a mentor whose critical skills you respect, who knows you well enough to make an informed judgment about your work, and who cares enough to tell you where you need to improve, then you owe it to them — and yourself — to listen.
Mentors are not infallible, and sometimes you reach the point where you’ve outgrown them. But it often pays to give them the benefit of the doubt, and consider their criticisms carefully instead of dismissing them.
Finally, when faced with criticism, it helps if you can get a little critical distance on your own work, to counteract your natural tendency to identify with it. This isn’t easy, but it’s an essential skill for professionals – see my article Three Ways to Assess Your Own Creative Work.
The following episodes of The 21st Century Creative Podcast touch on the themes of today’s lesson:
Written by me, unless otherwise indicated
Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success – my book, which started with this lesson. 21st Century Creative students asked me for more help with dealing with rejection and criticism, which resulted in me writing the book.
Tune in next week …
… When we’ll look at what to do with difficult people.
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