I mentioned a while back that I wrote a story about a standup comedian finding redemption. For the "research" phase of the piece, I looked into how comedians craft jokes and listened to tons of podcasts.
It turns out comedians aren't naturally funny people. In fact, most of them have depression issues. What made them good at their craft wasn't natural talent, but rather that they learned how to embrace, and celebrate, rejection.
Rejection is a normal part of life, but it is especially more prevalent for artists of all types.
In the early days of punk rock, it was normal for people to throw full beer bottles at the "musicians" on stage. Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols was known for his ability to get hit and keep playing no matter what happened. Mike Ness of Social Distortion talked about having to pick up their equipment and run away from, or fight back against, construction workers. But the movement persisted, and today it's normal to see a teenager wear a Nirvana shirt who doesn't even know who Nirvana is (making old-school rockers like me sad.)
If every rock band had accepted rejection negatively, we wouldn't have music that we would consider to be "classic rock."
It turns out there's some cool science behind accepting rejection and it's all about what the Harvard Business Review calls the Resilience Quotient (or RQ.) It's part of a growing field of study around post-traumatic growth. And the good news is that RQ can be developed and grown.
It turns out that rejection, loss, and setbacks can be a healthy part of growth when they're dealt with in the right way and if the resources are accessible. Resilience isn't as much of a natural characteristic as it is something that's honed within the context of community and personal narratives.
The Harvard Business Review is currently working on a study about resilience - specifically how our networks and personal motivations help us build up our RQ. RQ, roughly defined, is our ability to cope with, or bounce back from, setbacks or trauma.
The Harvard Business Review also writes: "We’ve learned that negative experiences can spur positive change, including a recognition of personal strength, the exploration of new possibilities, improved relationships, a greater appreciation for life, and spiritual growth. We see this in people who have endured war, natural disasters, bereavement, job loss and economic stress, serious illnesses and injuries."
There is also the other side of this growth: the story we tell ourselves.
When I was fifteen years old, I got a 2,500 word rejection letter to a 1,500 word story. I remember proudly saying I was fifteen years old in the introduction letter. I remember the way it started to this day: "Had you read the guidelines, you would know that we don't publish this kind of work."
I then saw this editor rip my story to shreds. I didn't know how to take it, so I just wrote back: "Thanks. :) " I was fifteen and therefore perpetually awkward in everything I did. I remember proudly sharing that I was young in the cover letter too.
"Look at me go," I thought. "I'm a teenager. I write things. Be impressed, mere mortals."
Then, when I got that letter, I thought: "Guess I'm a dumpster fire of a writer. Whoopsies."
After that rejection letter, I didn't submit again for about eight years. I decided to let that editor have the final say. The narrative I told myself was that the writing gig's tough and there's no way I could make it in the fiction world. But then I entertained the possibility that the editor was wrong, and changed the story I was telling myself.
Fourteen years later, I tried to find that magazine to submit to it and make possible amends if the editor remembered me. The magazine is now defunct. I'm not saying God picked a side here, but I'm also not not going to say it.
Here's the point.
There's two ways you can respond to rejection: you can sit there and think your art's terrible, or you can view the letter as an invitation to keep doing better and learn how to bounce back. Rejections can be something to celebrate instead, because it showed you put yourself out there.
When you recognize that there are going to be things always out of your control, all you can really do is say a brief serenity prayer and keep going.
These studies also show that you should surround yourself with good people who get what you're about. We're made to live in community, and it turns out even things like this needs support from healthy people. If we're doing this by ourselves, we get burned out fast. So no matter where you're at, find a good mentor or personal cheerleader to help you with these goals. There are resources that can be made available, and I'd be more than happy to help you out there if you need it.
Bottom-line: if you want to be good at anything, or even learn how to be healthier, you have to take that risk of rejection. That's where the sweet stuff from life comes from. There's no such thing as a harmless risk. The fact of the matter is that most people live their lives in perpetual fear of rejection in one way or another. We're programmed to think that rejection is always a bad thing, when in reality it can be used to gain a richer life.
But what really matters is that you're in a constant state of learning how to be better. Rejection is inevitable. Growth is optional. It's a very different story with serious trauma that sets you back and that's a separate conversation, but if you have a goal you're trying to reach and you're facing pushback - keep going. It'll make you stronger in the end.
As for me? I'm planning on buying a cake with the word Congrats? written on top when I get to a hundred rejections. I'm at 83 letters right now, and I'm already thinking about how awesome that cake will be.
Your worth is not found in rejections, what people think of you, or even your successes. God made you the person you are today for a reason. Don't let all that go to waste because some people don't understand who you are or your work. If you've gotten rejected, it meant that you were courageous enough to put something personal forward. Celebrate that, and see it as an invitation to a better way of life.
Love yourself by going out there and getting turned down for doing what you love. Your future self will thank you for the boldness you had to define your own path.
(PS: If you're more of a podcast person, I would recommend checking this out from the PSI Seminars Podcast. It's about post-traumatic growth and RQ in light of 2020 and COVID - super interesting stuff!)