I want to take a minute to talk about rejection. And I want to talk about failure. And I want to talk about how these two things are different. Over the past 15 years I've received awards, residencies, grants, publishing, teaching, and exhibiting opportunities for my creative work. I've shown art. Shared art. Sold art. Made art. Published art. Produced art. Studied art. Taught art. And applied for more art opportunities than I could ever count.
But I've also received a heap of rejection letters. Sure, my submissions have changed. My rejections have changed. And the list of places that I submit work for publication, commission, funding, teaching, and/ or exhibiting has changed too. I might not get rejected today from the same place that rejected me 15 years ago, but that doesn't mean the rejection letters have gone away. It just means the senders have changed. And you know what? It's just the norm.
It's less important that I receive a rejection and more important that I'm careful with my reaction to being rejected. It's less important that I receive the rejection than it is to confuse rejection with failure. One thing has not changed: I must manage my response to rejection. I cannot allow it to send me into a downward spiral of self-doubt, low self-esteem, or creative isolation. I have to receive the rejection, experience the disappointment, maybe even grieve a little, and then take a deep breath and get back to work.
Rejection is simply part of being a working artist. I will not receive every publication, commission, funding, teaching, and/ or exhibiting opportunity. I just won't. It's not the way it works in the arts and it's actually impossible--my work will not appeal to everyone and I cannot be everywhere all the time. But there's one place where I stand firm: A rejection letter does not mean I failed. Quite the opposite, it means I tried. And likely, it means I should carry on and keep trying again and again.
I was recently emailing with a handful of artist friends and one of them wrote about a rejection letter she received from an arts foundation--she had applied for an insanely competitive grant and not surprisingly she was rejected. This artist was just featured in a slew of newspapers, design blogs, and social media feeds. She just exhibited and sold several original pieces of art.
But not surprisingly, she was rejected from a heap of applications for an artists' grant. To give some perspective, I'd estimate this particular foundation funds about 2% of the applications it receives. 2%. That means 98% of the applicants will be rejected. This means her rejection was not a personal attack. It was just the norm.
This email set-off a series of emails from each of the artists on the list about similar rejections. There were five working artists on the email thread: Each with exhibiting, publishing, and teaching experience under her belt; Each an "important" and "professional" artist in the Bay Area arts community (meaning she creates, exhibits, sells, and publishers her work on a regular basis); And each and every one spoke up about receiving and managing multiple rejections. Guess what? It's just the norm.
It made me think about how little we share our rejections with the public. How we might even want to pretend they don't exist. How we'd prefer to share our accomplishments, opportunities, and accolades. And of course, we should. But I also think there's something powerful and important about sharing our rejections. Because they are important too. And quite frankly, they are super important to the career of an artist. They mean she's showing up, reaching out, and continuing ahead with her goals. They mean she's accepting rejection and carrying on.
I'm going to be teaching a handful of grantwriting workshops in the next few months. I love teaching this work because it lets me share my experiences as a program director and development director with other independent working artists. I've written and received grants with major arts institutions, individual artists, and for my own creative work. I've seen the span of submissions from brilliantly written and compiled to half-assed and haphazard. But you know what? Even the brilliantly written are sometimes rejected from the funder. Why? Because there just aren't enough funds to go around--sometimes 98% of the applicants will receive rejections. It's just the norm.
Even the best grant writers from the most notorious arts organizations still open up rejection letters. I promise they do. And they should! They might open them less frequently than their start-up colleagues but, trust me, they still open rejection letters and their hearts still sink. This does not make them failures. It makes them risk-takers. Sometimes it makes them trailblazers. In some cases, it just means they are doing their job, trying to diversify their income streams, trying to reach new donors for increased support, trying to take the work to the next level. Sometimes, it means they are ahead of the curve not behind.
I often tell my grantwriting students: If you are not managing rejections you are not submitting enough work. And I really believe this to be true. There is a huge, gigantic, enormous difference between an artist who has failed and an artist who has been rejected. Failure is a personal thing--more simply, it might just mean something didn't technically work and so the results were not possible. I tried to make French seams on my Taproot Tunic but I failed and reverted back to using my pinking shears. I failed. So what? I'll try again next time. It's okay.
But rejection is not failure. It's part of the job of being an artist. It's part of the job of being a writer--ask any published writer if she ever received a rejection letter and you'd be hard-pressed to find somebody who managed to avoid this heartbreak altogether. It's just how it works. Hopefully as we move further along in our careers we have a better understanding of who/ what/ where will support our work and we might receive fewer rejections. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe we'll continue to reach outside of our comfort zones and find a new batch of rejections just around the corner. Maybe. Maybe not.
Either way: It's okay. It's normal. It's part of the job. And I think we could probably say this is part of the job of athletes, entertainers, designers, entrepreneurs, authors, and artists everywhere. We face rejection but that does not mean we've failed. It means we are temporarily denied what we thought we wanted. Maybe even what we thought we needed. And it just means that we are taking risks. It means we are doing our job. It also means we need to keep showing up and keep doing our jobs so we have a better view of our acceptances too--because it's all too easy to add up the stack of rejections and oversee the opportunities and advances.
Rejection is just part of our process. It's just the norm. It's part of the job description even if it's written in very fine print across the very bottom of the contract we have with our selves: Sign this dotted line to manage rejection and then sign this bottom line to realize that does not mean you have failed. It means you had the guts to put your work out there and hopefully you'll have the guts to do it again. In my mind, an artist only fails if she gives up on her work.
If she overlooks adversity as an opportunity to learn. If she stops believing in her potential to contribute meaningful art to the world then she's failed herself. And she's failed the rest of us too, because maybe she just needed to keep working for a few more months, a few more years, maybe even a few more decades. But she did not need to quit. She needed to manage her reaction to rejection and carry on. Because you know what? The world needs our work. And it needs us to weather the unavoidable rejection and keep making work that's better and better. Rejection and failure are two very different things.
I need to make a poster: Accept rejection and carry on.