Rebounding from Rejection
by Taylor Slattery | February 17, 2022
Nobody likes rejection. Rejection hurts, it’s confusing. It’s an all-around difficult thing to deal with. It can completely take the wind out of our sails, leaving us at a loss for which next step to take. Without direction, our minds are often sent reeling, causing us to retreat into our thoughts and endlessly self-analyze in the worst kind of way.
Part of what makes rejection so hard to deal with is that our earliest experiences with it are largely social. Whether it was a failed attempt at fitting in with the cool kids or a checkbox marked with an x next to the word ‘no’ on a ‘will you go out with me?’ note to our grade-school crush—we’ve all had experiences that have left us a little embittered. While similar experiences may lead others to avoid any potential rejection altogether, paradoxically, as creatives, we’ve chosen a profession that involves quite a bit of it.
Professionally, rejection comes to take on a whole new meaning. You could say it becomes a way of life. Our jobs require that we constantly put ourselves in positions with a high likelihood of rejection. From sharing ideas at meetings and approaching clients, to applying for jobs, grants, and contests, these sorts of rejection often have a social component to them, but that’s not all we’re up against. Rejection is a key part of the creative process as well.
At every stage in our workflow, rejection is present. It acts as a filter, preventing the unworthy ideas from moving any further so that only the best remain. Creative success is dependent on this kind of rejection. With so much rejection faced on a daily basis, it should come as no surprise that it can slip into our personal lives, taking a toll on our confidence and in turn, affecting our work.
As creatives, we aren’t simply engineers building solutions to the specs of our clients’ needs. The nature of the work is such that we put a bit of ourselves into each project. It’s on those occasions when we’ve put a little more of ourselves that rejection feels like a direct measure of our abilities or worth as a creative. Naturally, these rejections tend to hit harder than those we’re less personally invested in, but perhaps also present a greater opportunity for growth.
For all the pain and difficulty that rejection brings into our lives, it is nonetheless an essential part of both our personal growth and career development. It’s perfectly ok to be disappointed and feel out of sorts for a day or two as you process your feelings and the events. Eventually, though, we need to move past those initial feelings and use this experience as a catalyst for growth. Just like our initial ideas and rough sketches, rejection, too, functions as a necessary stepping stone that leads to something greater. By learning to accept rejection for what it is, we’re able to move past it.
The rejection wasn’t of you as a person or you work as a whole, rather, just the current version. View this as a chance to improve rather than a personal slight against you. Look for something to learn from the failure. This is easier said than done, but try to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. There are likely a number of things that have contributed to this outcome.
Consider all the factors at play. Perhaps it was just an issue of timing. Maybe they see your potential but you need some time to further develop before you’re ready for this role or a project of this scale. It might have also been a matter of taste. They might have loved your work but it just wasn’t the right match for this particular project and they’ll keep you in mind for the next.
If you’ve made a blatant error, then, by all means, correct it—but don’t waste any time or energy worrying about things that are outside of your control. There’s nothing you can do to change someone’s preferences, and if your work doesn’t resonate with them, it can’t be helped. That doesn’t mean that the same exact proposal won’t be a smash hit with someone else. If landing this particular client is your goal, use this information to adjust your approach, otherwise, take this as a sign to look elsewhere. If you’re confident in your work, there is no shortage of opportunities, you just have to find the right ones for you.
It’s easy to lean toward self-scrutiny given the way things turned out, but it’s important to remember that you don’t have the full picture and things may not be nearly as bleak as they seem. As you examine the various factors that may have played a role in your rejection, you’ll find that some of them simply can’t be helped. No amount of preparation can account for the fact that your client doesn’t like the color red or can’t stand the sight of turtles because their parents wouldn’t let them have one as a kid. Focus your efforts only on those areas that are in your control.
Technical issues pertaining to the work itself like errors in layout or typography, as well as issues in presentation like clarity of process or an inability to articulate rationale are all prime candidates for improvement. Perhaps there is someone who was involved in the decision making you can ask for feedback or clarity. It’s through both feedback from others and personal reflection that these sorts of oversights are revealed.
It’s easy to develop tunnel vision and lose objectivity after spending countless hours with a project. Coming back with fresh eyes some days or weeks later may reveal mistakes we had been completely blind to. Those seeing the work for the first time have a perspective we lack and that’s a valuable insight to tap into. If those involved with the decision-making that resulted in your rejection are unavailable for comment, finding a stand-in is the next best thing. Try giving the exact pitch or presentation to a variety of third parties, both to those in your industry and those outside. Collecting feedback from multiple perspectives can arm you with insights you couldn’t arrive at alone and better prepare you for a wider variety of audiences.
Examining our failures from a variety of different angles illuminates mistakes and allows us to improve upon ourselves to be better prepared for the next time. It’s only through this sort of repetition that we’re able to patch the cracks in our game and polish our skills to the best level possible.
That being said, rejection can undoubtedly take an emotional toll. Times like these are also prime opportunities to break out the highlight reel and remind yourself of all of your successes. Reviewing all the great work you’ve done can remind you of what you’re capable of and help to restore your morale. A quick run through the archives should be all you need to shake off that temporary weight of defeat so you can pick yourself up and get back back to work.
Your rejections don’t define you, they’re just hurdles along the way. It’s how you choose to respond that matters. Treat each rejection as an opportunity to learn and improve.
Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.