Rejection is useful in all its forms

All of us have known rejection.

It comes in all forms and flavors, from romance to work and everything in between. It varies in impact and pain, livelihood and acceptance. It is a ubiquitous vein of pain we all share in some form or another. And the more you live, the more chances you take, the more you are rejected on a routine basis.

I am feeling this pain acutely now as I move into the territory of publishing books. And this is right about the time my brilliant editor sent me an article from The Atlantic titled The Fine Art of Failure by Stephen Marche, which she sent me with the note: “Saw this and thought of you.”

Ouch. Am I that transparent? To my editor, yes, and she was right to send me this article, which ended up being comforting to know that I’m not the only one facing rejection on a regular basis. My editor, you see, has been on the receiving end of my emails during the writing, editing, and rewriting process that makes a writer want to crawl in a hole and never come out again. Every time I wrote her over the last year, I put into ink the abstract feelings of doubt and insecurity that plague any writer. Things you say like: “I want to quit,” “I think I should stop,” “I can’t do this,” and “What if no one responds to this?” Those words are code for: “I’m not good enough,” “People won’t like me,” “People won’t get me,” “I’m all alone in this world.” All the doubts, the insecurities—it all comes from the fear of being rejected. Criticized.

And then, the sting of actually being rejected comes when, in fact, those fears are, in part, true. Some people don’t get me. I’m not quite good enough. I’m alone in the world. I’m not reaching anyone.

And then I go back: What did I miss? What did I do wrong? And I do it all over again.

And then: rejection.

And then I go back: What did I miss? What did I do wrong? And I do it all over again.

And then: rejection.

And then I go back: What did I miss? What did I do wrong? And I do it all over again.

And then: An email. “My God this is good.” And then another: “Wow, I really connected with this.” And then another: “Write another book!”

And then I go back: What did I do right? And I do it all over again.

Rejection is the worst. It’s hard, it’s painful, it sometimes comes to us in ways that are cruel and hurt us, and sometimes it comes to us in ways that are humane and gentle. I once had a boss who said to me: “Does it really matter how the rejection or the criticism comes to you? If it’s true, it’s valid. Take it and do something with it. And don’t ever stop trying, even if you don’t do it right the first time.”

That has stuck with me my whole life. He hit on two very important notes about rejection.

The first is the idea that no matter how rejection or criticism comes to us (cruel or kind), it’s valuable for us to hear what others are saying and to do something with it. I once had a coworker I admired from a distance at the way she could hear beyond criticism the words that were being said. It never mattered to her how curt a person was or how insensitive or how destructive their tone, she was a master at breezing right by it and really hearing what was being said. I studied her for years, learning from her example to ignore the delivery of the rejection or the critique, and to just listen for the nuggets of information that were going to make me better. Make my work better. It was life-changing to look past rejection and to see the honesty behind it, then use that honesty to move forward with a lesson learned.

The second is the idea that rejection or criticism shouldn’t be a reason to stop doing something—it should be a reason to change how you’re doing that something. I have yet to meet anyone who does something perfectly on the first try. Do it well? Yes. But perfectly? Not a chance. Doing something very well takes a lot of time, a lot of practice, a lot of patience, and a lot of rejection and criticism. Sometimes for years and years and years. When I first started my career in journalism, I had an editor yell across the room, “Stephanie, this sucks! Write it again.” I glanced over to an older coworker who just smirked and said: “You wanna be a writer? Get used to it.” So I rewrote it. Three times. And I learned very quickly that I couldn’t let rejection or criticism stop me from moving forward—or I’d never move forward.

I have been a writer since I was nine years old. My first book was Escape from the Chocolate Factory, where two courageous chocolate bars decided they didn’t want to be eaten by human beings, and narrowly escaped the evil clutches of the factory owners to go live their lives in Chocolate Land free and happy. My next was a newspaper at twelve years old with the front page headline Ohio State Fat Baby is Born! I sold it for five cents a copy to all my classmates. I became a journalist after college and went on to be a storyteller in many mediums across many publications, corporations, and media outlets. I won a few awards. I got rejected and criticized. I kept moving forward.

For more than three decades, I have been rejected and criticized routinely, daily, hourly, and always. The difference between then and now is that now I know how to use it constructively. And that has changed everything for me. Rejection and critique have become my friends I invite to dinner, listen to intently, and send home with all the love and care of an old friend.

I hope you can learn to embrace rejection and criticism in the same way. It can tell you things you need to know to keep moving your life forward. And do it better every single time you do.

xo — S.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s