I ushered in 2019 with a giant “rejected” inspection sticker on my car and a smashed back window. Not having any money to fix these issues, I’ve just been driving around with a big ol’ R on my windshield, announcing to the world and reminding myself multiple times a day that I do not have it together. Last week my muffler started falling off, so now my failure to adult is making a loud announcement everywhere I go.
This is the most appropriate metaphor for my life in 2019.
If you are a fragile person, do not become an artist.
If you are an extra fragile person, do not try to start a grassroots organization.
If your bones are made of moths and your skin is made of 1 ply store-brand toilet paper (*cough* me), absolutely do not attempt both of these at the same time.
2019 has, so far, been my year of holding my breath and taking chances. I’m in a constant state of fixing my resume, recording introduction videos, filling out applications, showing up at galleries and networking events, and sending so many emails that some days my phone won’t cough them up because the memory is full. Out of hundreds of emails, conversations, applications, attempted exploitation and empty promises, I’ve received a small handful of good news. Those few yes’s have been the tiny droplets of rain that have sustained me through the desert of my 2019 career.
The average healthy person would have taken this as a sign and walked away by now. But any artist or grassroots organizer knows all too well-- this is just how it goes.
Both of these fields require an overwhelming level of risk and exposure. There’s truly no way around it unless you were born into it. This will equally strengthen your character and crush your soul. You will be so angry at some points that you will shout that no one can stop you, and it will manically launch you into the next application. You will feel so deeply sad at other points that you will fade away from the world and consider alternative options in the event that you walk away from it all. And then you’ll get a bite and fly around the house like a superhero, talking to everyone like Hollywood called and you’re finally on your way.
Someone said to me recently, “no one will give you a chance until someone gives you a chance.”
That’s basically the best way to sum this game up.
Rejection is hard. No matter how many times someone will tell you that it’s just part of life, or a requirement of your particular field, sometimes it never stops hurting.
Rejection represents different things to different people. Some folx are well-adjusted enough that they can let these things roll off and keep moving, motivated by one closed door to open an even better door. Some folx will take a little bit of time to be bummed, then go back to the drawing board to check their business plan and calculations and try again. Then there are folx like myself who have their deepest traumas associated with rejection. People like me who need help peeling apart an impersonal bcc rejection notice from Sony from everytime I heard “you can’t sit with us” as a kid.
That sounds absurd, right? Yes, rationally I know that my project not fitting certain criteria for another organization’s grant program is NOT the same as every time a partner left me for another woman. But my heart hasn’t caught up. My rational brain also processes that fact and replies to my heart, “oh, you soft sweet thing, I don’t think this is the path for you.” But then my gut leaps up and barks, “GET BACK UP AND RIDE. CALL YOUR THERAPIST AND KEEP IT MOVING. WE’VE GOT SHIT TO DO.”
So if you’re like me and you don’t handle rejection well at all, but also understand that this is the life you’ve chosen and rejection is par for the course, then read on. If you do handle rejection pretty well but could use an extra boost, you can read on too. If you’re impenetrable to rejection or criticism of any kind, then good for you, this isn’t for you. I’m no expert on this subject, but I certainly spend a lot of time thinking about it, reading about it, and giving myself a lot of pep talks. I also give my friends a ton of pep talks. None of that means I ever take my own advice, but at least I’m aware of my options.
Here’s a little listicle to help you through the rejection blues:
It’s not about you. Depending on the nature of your particular career, most of the time it’s completely impersonal. If you want to get self-help about it, technically nothing is personal; we’re all just walking around casting and receiving projections all day, everyday. But for the sake of effective accountability and practical skill building, we won’t rely on that. Most of the time, a rejection notice simply means that your particular skill set does not fit their ideal candidate. It doesn’t mean they hate you, it only means that the resume or application further down the pile just nailed it. It might mean that a director had a certain voice or image of a character for the role that needs to be filled, and that person showed up to the audition. A choreographer might have a dance sequence that just wasn’t in your particular wheelhouse. They’re probably not thinking about how you “suck”. They’re thinking about how excited they are that the person who got the role is a good fit.
Sometimes it is about you. This can either be a growing and learning opportunity, or a quitting moment, depending on who you are. Sometimes people won’t like you, simply because you represent something you have no control over. Sometimes we have conflict with people who later end up in hiring positions for jobs we want. Especially in fields with high competition, people gossip, and some dirt about you that may or may not be true got around to your disadvantage. All of this happens and it’s not uncommon. All I can say in those instances is to not give up, and that other opportunities absolutely do exist. Most of us in these fields have insecurities, and have experienced an “everyone hates me” complex at least once. Brush it off as much as you can. But if you’re experiencing a very clear pattern of being directly asked to leave or being passed over or avoided, consider your own behavior. We all like to talk a big game about cutting other toxic people out of our lives, but what about our own toxicity? What if I am that toxic person? Do a scan of your own behavior. Sometimes the answers hurt. But if you do a deep dig, ultimately your life and the lives around you will benefit from the introspection and growth. Unless someone is a real threat, I don’t agree with cancel culture. But sometimes we still get put in time-out. Ultimately, learning and improvement can only come from an internal commitment to do better.
Ask for feedback. Some residency programs, grant programs, fellowships, and even hiring companies will offer feedback on resumes and applications if requested. Depending on the size of the program or organization, you’re more likely to get generalized feedback-- what their decision making process is, what they specifically look for, key words or concepts that either stand out or disqualify a candidate, common mistakes applicants make, etc. After receiving a rejection notice, I like to visit the company’s website to see who won the award or position so I can get a better idea of who they’re actually looking for. Over time, patterns emerge for what types of people are most often selected, and I begin to adjust my applications or business approach accordingly. If you’re fortunate enough to receive any kind of feedback, utilize it to fuel yourself and strengthen your game. Also, if proposal workshops or pre-interviews are offered or available, take them. Every single time. Even if it leads nowhere, it’s still skill-building.
Never stop learning. It doesn’t matter who you are, you can always improve your skills or gain new ones. If you are rejected from a job, program or role, it’s most likely because you are either not experienced enough or are lacking a certain skill they desire. Take your few hours or days to shit all over the hiring manager or director for not being able to see your genius, or find all the invisible flaws of the person who got the opportunity over you, and then get back to work. Take voice lessons, enroll in dance classes, download Duolingo, go back to school, volunteer at that shelter or festival, or work in another organization or non-profit for a while to gain experience from the inside.
Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Even top professionals still work with mentors and business coaches. The most successful people know how to delegate (but not exploit). You literally cannot do it all, and absolutely no one makes it alone.
We live in an unfair world. Sometimes you actually are the perfect candidate, but the hiring manager or director has biases that prevent people from your particular demographic or intersecting identities from having opportunities. There are absolutely times when I see a list of grantees who, in my opinion, do not deserve certain opportunities, ie. already rich people taking grant money to do subpar and exploitative work, when brilliant folx with incredible plans who just need a little boost get brushed aside because they’re not yet in a club of tuxedoed elbow-rubbers. I see recipient lists comprised of all white people, ten of them men and three women, maybe one token Asian woman or Black man. Once I was slutshamed out of a role I was very qualified for because one of the lead actresses didn’t like the male attention I was receiving. This all technically falls under “it’s not about you”, but this one kinda is about you and a lot of people, and it’s deeply messed up, so I gave it its own category because it’s worth fighting against. Be careful though-- many people like to use this when they don’t want to be honest with themselves about being unqualified (I have been this person) or challenging to work with. Sometimes it’s not that you’re a woman or gay or “ugly”. It’s that you notoriously don’t reply to emails from producers, or you’ve never taken a dance class and are auditioning to be a backup dancer for Madonna’s next tour. It’s probably not gonna happen for you.
Get real about certain misleading terms. “New” or “Emerging” artist in many industries actually means an artist with a lot of higher education credentials or has been working on this specific project/skill set for 15-30+ years, has thousands of dollars of high-end equipment and studio access, has won multiple prestigious awards, various publications and film releases, and likely knows someone who knows Oprah. “New Artist” and “Emerging Artist” actually mean very accomplished and established artist who has been doing this forever, and people are finally starting to notice them. It took me a while not to get my feelings hurt about this because I couldn’t make that connection. Refer back to "never stop learning".
You probably haven’t tried everything. I’ll often throw up my hands and cry that I don’t know what else to do, but this is actually total bullshit. What happens more often is that we just ran out of our existing resources at our current level. Often we don’t even realize that it’s not that we’ve tried everything, it’s that we don’t know what questions to ask to move forward. A few months ago, a very business savvy friend sent me a link to an online business planning program for entrepreneurs, and it blew my brain open in regards to approach, marketing, budgeting, etc. I was operating at only 5% and spinning my wheels out, and had no idea. I’ve been relying on methods and structures from a different career to launch something totally different, not to mention relying on an old audience that largely has no interest in my new pursuits. No wonder I’ve hit a million roadblocks! Enroll in a training or planning program. Read books. Watch films and tutorials. Hire a coach or mentor. Spend time with other advanced professionals in your field of interest. I can guarantee that you will learn a whole lot about everything you’re not doing to help yourself. Once you gain that insight, it’s up to you to motivate to make it happen. No one is going to hold your hand or do it for you. At least not for free.
Start your own project. If other groups and organizations keep rejecting or passing you over, maybe that’s a call that you are the only one who can birth your idea into the world. If you don’t feel like you fit in anywhere else, build your own house. Step up!
Being a leader will break your heart. This seems like it would fall more under interpersonal rejection rather than business, but I’ve actually found through conversations with others and personal experience that this is a very real part of the job. It’s the part people don’t always warn you about. Everyone think it’s glamorous to be a leader. Sometimes it is! Certain freedoms and powers definitely have their plus side, and there’s nothing like watching some seed of an idea in your brain come to fruition in your external reality. However, this is not a choice for the faint of heart. You will also be the recipient of everyone’s authority issues. You will inevitably let people down, despite your absolute best and most caring efforts. Someone/s will need you to play the role of super villain in their life. People will talk about how you’re doing a bad job and how they or someone else could do way better. Sometimes that’s true, but most often it’s like how everyone who watches the news regularly thinks they should run for president. I’m still not totally sure how to deal with this, but I’ve often found that the best approach is to have a clear vision for why you're doing this work, and really get to know the personalities and emotional/mental processes of the people you most frequently work with. Knowing how your people work will save you mountains of stress, and is 100% always better than making assumptions. Practice setting strong, healthy boundaries, and prioritize having hard conversations from a grounded place.
The world doesn’t owe you. Just because you like it doesn’t mean it’s for you. For every opportunity you think you deserve, tens, hundreds and sometimes thousands of others also feel and hope the same for themselves. It’s great to be confident and that’s awesome energy to throw out there in terms of attracting abundance. But humility will help with inevitable letdowns. It will also prevent you from lashing out at people who are just trying to do their jobs and live their lives. You are special. Also, you are not special.
You are not alone. Whenever I see a TV show or movie I like, I always google the directors and cast. I’ll dig around and learn about their story, previous awards and roles, and what they did to earn their career. What you overwhelmingly find are stories of countless rejections, weird side jobs, tiny roles until they were in their thirties or forties, or that they started training when they were ten. Golden Globe and Emmy award-winning show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, was initially rejected by every pitched network, sometimes receiving up to seven rejections a day, until the CW finally picked them up. We forget that this is the reality even for people who we perceive to have “made it” or are “at the top”. It’s an oversaturated market full of big personalities and talent. So no, you’re not being singled out or picked on.
Don’t quit. Or do. That’s up to you and how much you’re willing to tolerate. Sometimes you just have to be patient and wait for that break, or slowly build your client base/repertoire over time. Other times, you might be in the right forest, but you’re not barking up the right tree. There are a lot of people in theater, many of whom thought they would be doing a different job originally, but realized after a lot of stress, disappointments and rejection that perhaps they were pushing in the wrong department-- production managers who are better performers, actors who are better tech crew, costumers who are better marketing directors, and so on. Not everyone has “it” in every activity they feel passionate about, despite trying and practicing around the clock, but they might be super valuable or even brilliant in a different corner of that industry. The most important questions to consistently ask yourself when feeling defeated after a rejection is, “is there clear, concrete evidence that this isn’t working out for me? Or am I simply approaching this from the wrong angle or missing an important piece?” If it’s the latter, refer back to "You Probably Haven't Tried Everything". I recently hosted an event that had a painfully low turnout, and it hurt my heart and ego in a mind-bending way. But once I was able to begin peeking out from the pain, I gained an immense amount of clarity on both the situation and my project as a whole. This letdown was a blessing in disguise because it’s what was needed to finally start getting out of my own way, ask myself some serious come-to-jesus questions, and begin rewriting my vision. It’s super important to note that there’s no way I could have dug myself out from my mountain of despair without this next part:
Do not skip self-care. It is an outdated and false belief that self-destruction for our work = more badges of honor. Rejection hurts, and it plays into our narratives of lack of self-worth. Every rejection will remind you of the other rejections you’ve had. You’ll lie to yourself and say that no one else you know has ever been rejected. The best medicine for this state of being is kindness. Let yourself have your feelings, and give yourself time to mourn if you need to. Let yourself get some extra sleep. Reschedule plans if you don’t have the energy to be present, or make plans with quality friends, family or partners if you don’t want to be alone. Take a warm bath or shower, put on clothes with fabric that feels nice, and eat something delicious (as much as you goddamn want). If you don’t have any immediate deadlines, let yourself take the day to binge-watch Netflix, go out in nature to get your toes dirty and see something pretty, and drink that glass of wine if you want (but also hydrate). Sign out of facebook, put your messenger notifications on mute, and even turn your phone off for a few hours. Some of you might be like “ahhh!! It sounds like you’re enabling depression symptoms!! Just be happy!” Look-- it’s okay to pause when you feel sad. It’s even okay to feel depressed for a minute, especially if it’s situational. We need to honor our process so we can move on. Once you’re done with the grieving process (I suggest seeing a trained professional if these feelings persist for longer than a couple weeks, as it might be a sign of another underlying issue), evaluate the world you’ve created around yourself. What are your daily habits? Are you surviving or thriving? Are you living a lifestyle that supports your goals? One of the absolute most important things you can do to create a healthy environment for yourself is to surround yourself with the right people. Keep friends who genuinely care about you and support you, and not only will listen when you’re having a hard time, but will also celebrate your successes. Have friends who do what you do, that way you have like-minded folks you can speak openly with. Very little sucks more that spending your whole life force pursuing something important to you, only to be misunderstood by everyone around you. Cultivate a social life that feels inspiring and challenges you to be your best self, but doesn’t reject or neglect your wholeness. Your friend circle is not responsible for your happiness and wellbeing, but it definitely doesn’t suck to have true companions on your journey who believe in you.
I want to tell you that just pushing through all of this will make you invincible, but I can’t promise that. You might never become braver. You might decide that this level of risk and exposure isn’t for you. Or you might grow a thick skin, business savviness, and a good sense of humor about it all. For me, the pain of rejection from opportunities I really care about never really subsided, but my recovery time is a hell of a lot shorter. However, that also means that I’m putting myself out there a lot more, which means that I’m currently receiving rejections on a weekly, and sometimes daily basis. I’d be lying if I said this hasn’t changed me as a person. I’m far more private. Even my partner, who shares a home with me, doesn’t know most of what I’m up to with my work and craft. I’ve begun reading up on the Buddhist concept of non-attachment, and practicing letting things flow in and out of my life, keeping an open mind and allowing them to inform me as they will. I have far more humility and gratitude these days for when I actually do get accepted or am asked to join a project. Receiving a lot of rejection will also make your own boundaries stronger. Hearing no all the time helps you to realize how impersonal business is and can be, so you lose fear around telling others no when they present you with gigs and proposals.
All that being said, I think the #1 most valuable lesson I’ve learned in all of this is the simplest, most cliche advice-- you won’t know if you don’t try. Maybe 2% of the time you don’t want to put yourself on certain radars, or even risk something at the wrong time. But 98% of the time if you put yourself out there and try, the worst that’ll happen is you hear “no”, and then you remain exactly where you are. Sending in a grant proposal or an email proposal to your favorite celebrity will not set you backwards if you receive a “no” or no response. However, in the event that you receive a “yes”, it will change your life.
So get up, buy some ice cream, invest $35 in that online business plan template, email your A-list dream collaborators (followed by more tangible collaborators), and give your best life a shot. You’d be amazed by what you can accomplish with a little bit of courage.
If all else fails, you’ll learn a lot and can become a coach for your friends to help them soar to success and take a cut of their earnings. Good luck!