“There is no final victory, as there is no final defeat. There is just the same battle. To be fought, over and over again. So toughen up, bloody toughen up.”
Tony Benn, Socialist
“If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph.”
T.S. Eliot, Poet
“Never confuse a single failure with a final defeat.”
“Failure is part of it. You will be rejected dozens and dozens of times. The best way to prepare for it is to have something else in the works by the time the rejection letter arrives. Invest your hope in the next project. Learning to cope with rejection is a good trait to develop.”
“… for every accomplishment there were twenty rejections. A dance company thought my style was incompatible with theirs. A casting director found me lacking. An editor considered my writing too fanciful, or too plain, too abstract or too concrete. I could go on for hours. In the end, though, only one attitude enabled me to move ahead. That attitude said, ‘Rejection can simply mean redirection.’”
In his book Drive Daniel Pink writes about two kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Autonomy, mastery and purpose motivate us from within. Money, praise, status and all the rest motivate us from outside. Writing includes both kinds of motivation but I think what motivates us to write more than anything else is the need to be read. Why else would you write? But what happens if we aren’t read as much as we expect to be read, or worse, what if no one reads our work at all?
The danger of unchecked expectations like wanting to be read by so many people a day or to be followed by so many people in the space of a month or two is that, if they go unfulfilled and unnoticed long enough, we quit. It’s hard to stop and consider the possibility that we’re missing something. Maybe people can’t find our work because we haven’t marketed it enough or because we haven’t optimised it enough for Google and other search engines? Or maybe, like Steven Pressfield writes in Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit, “It isn’t that people are mean or cruel. They’re just busy.”
Also, as Seth Godin writes in The Practice, “people who are fairly satisfied say nothing.” If I like a newsletter or a blog post I don’t usually comment because I assume the author won’t reply and I’m wasting my time but for all I know that comment may just be what they needed.
So if people are busy or they don’t feel the need to comment and you don’t know what to think because no one’s giving you any feedback, why keep writing? I think William Zinsser can console us. He writes in On Writing Well:
“‘Who am I writing for?’ It’s a fundamental question and it has a fundamental answer: you are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualise the great mass audience. There is no such audience – every reader is different person. […] You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for.”
As for those troublesome expectations I think the poet Robert Bly can help us too. When Bly asked his mentor, William Stafford, how he was so prolific Stafford replied, “I lower my standards.” I feel we can do the same with our expectations.
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“[…] because there’s far more supply than demand, most of the feedback we receive is rejection. Rejection comes not just from the market, but from self-confident gatekeepers who we perceive as knowing more than we do.”
In my experience the worst thing about a rejection is not that they said no but that they won’t tell me why they said no so, in the absence of an answer, I supply my own answers. Maybe I’m no good? Why else would they say no?
Science tells us that our brains evolved to seek certainty even when the evidence, in a more critical light, is sketchy and unfounded. When confronted with uncertainty, in particular the uncertainty of a rejection without feedback, we scramble for an answer and in our haste we can latch onto beliefs that just aren’t true.
But sometimes there are good reasons for withholding feedback in a rejection. If you’re a magazine editor you can expect abuse if you tell a writer why their work wasn’t accepted because most writers pour themselves heart and soul into their work and any criticism of the work is a criticism of their very being. When a critic gave one of his novels a bad review the writer Richard Ford bought one of her books, blasted it with his shotgun then mailed it to her.
I’m astounded when I read of people being rejected hundreds of times before they finally broke through. For example, the actor Mark Ruffalo was rejected for 600 auditions. Can you fathom the emotional toll of being rejected that many times? We know, in hindsight, that he eventually succeeded but at the time he didn’t know. I applaud anyone who keeps going. Perhaps the only guarantee of success is that we don’t stop.
Og Mandino writes in The Greatest Salesman in the World:
“[…] it is not given to me to know how many steps are necessary in order to reach my goal. Failure I may still encounter at the thousandth step, yet success hides behind the next bend in the road. Never will I know how close it lies unless I turn the corner.”
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Last month I applied for a fellowship with Ann Friedman, a well-established journalist and podcaster. I hoped to learn from her and contribute to her popular newsletter but, alas, I wasn’t chosen. Turns out I was competing with 516 other people. But Ann was generous enough to leave us, the rejected, with plenty of encouragement by way of links to resources she herself relies on.
Brené Brown said in her Netflix special The Call to Courage that “You’re going to know failure if you’re brave with your life.” I love that. Sometimes bravery, and not success, becomes the important thing. I understand Brené to mean if I’m brave with my life I’ll take risks and a risk is only a risk if there’s a chance, however small, of failing.
It’s interesting – I feel encouraged by the rejection. The worst (a simple “no”) came to pass and I’m still here.
Let’s take another shot. What’s the worst that could happen?