What rejection can teach you (if you let it)

By Kathryn Gould
WIFMCO President

I’m sure you’ve all heard it before, but it bears repeating: if you want to work in this business, then you have to learn how to handle rejection. And it doesn’t matter if you are on the creative side of the business or the more technical side, you’re still going to face rejection—you aren’t experienced enough, you aren’t connected enough, you don’t have the right skill set, etc. And on the creative side, it’s even more personal. As writers, directors, actors and artists, we pour our hearts and souls into creating something, so when someone says essentially, our work isn’t good enough for them, it is nearly impossible NOT to take it personally. And you know what, that rejection might even be delivered to you in an inconsiderate, even hurtful way. And we still have to suck it up and, like a much put-upon Dickensian hero, learn to say, “Please, sir, may I have some more?” That’s the business.

But while simply learning to handle rejection may help you survive, is that really your goal? Don’t you want to thrive in this industry instead of just survive? If so, then why not take something that we all face, that everyone sees as a negative, and turn it to your advantage by learning everything you can from it?

In educational psychology there is a school of thought that a student’s mindset, or attitude about how they face new challenges in learning, is the most important factor in determining success. There are two competing attitudes: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. In the first, a student believes that his or her skills in a particular subject are inborn, fixed at birth. One is either good at math or not. You’re either a gifted computer programmer or you suck at it. Students with this mindset, even those whose IQs are high, tend not to succeed. They don’t necessarily fail outright, but they will flounder around in the middle ground, shrinking from challenges and refusing to put in the work that could make them great.

The other way of thinking, the growth mindset, can lead even those with middling IQs to become gifted, thriving students, and finally, experts in their chosen fields. For those with a growth mindset, skill in any particular area is something to be learned. Mastery is something that comes with hard work and dedication. These students seek out challenges, eagerly work to improve their knowledge and skills, and find ample internal motivation to work toward success.

But what does all of this have to do with rejection? Simple. If you believe that your skill as an actor, writer, director, etc. is something that you are just born with, you either have it or you don’t, then rejection will be devastating to you. One person’s opinion that you aren’t good enough is either a death sentence for your ambition, or will push you toward an inability to receive feedback of any kind (a death sentence for your career). But if you can cultivate a growth mindset, namely the belief that “not good enough” simply means “not yet good enough” then every rejection is simply fuel to add to your fire. And not only that, but it can help you avoid the dreaded “Dunning-Kruger” effect—blindness to your own inadequacies to the point that you can’t tell the difference between your own amateurish work and that of people who have mastered the art. If you know that you can develop into a better artist, then you don’t have to be ashamed of not being good enough when you’re starting out. You will actively seek out people who will speak unabashed truth to your every weakness until you have weeded out every last one. And you will continue to seek those people out throughout your career, knowing that there is always more to learn and room to improve.

What else can rejection teach us? Sometimes it can help us find those in the industry whom we really want to work with. If you have consistently gotten good, objective feedback on a project that is close to your heart, then a producer or director’s rejection of the project may mean that you simply value different things or are interested in very different kinds of projects. Instead of continually barking up the wrong tree, a rejection from certain people may simply mean that they aren’t your tribe. You’ll know when you’ve found your tribe, because your ideas light them up and vice versa. You can talk story for hours, and it seems like five minutes have gone by. This doesn’t mean you need to surround yourself with “yes” people. Your tribe should be filled with your biggest supporters, but also your most vocal critics. You should constantly strive make each other better, not form a mutual admiration society. A “rejection” from these close allies becomes that much more potent of a force for self-improvement when you know that it comes from those who believe in you and desperately want you to reach your potential. (And our hope in starting WIFMCO, of course, is that this will be a place where many of you will find your tribe.)

Rejection can also guide you to a path that you hadn’t considered before. Maybe you start out as a screenwriter, but after rounds and rounds of rejection, you discover that playwriting speaks more to your soul. Maybe you’re an actor, but as you butt heads with an industry that doesn’t seem to have a place for you, you find that directing is where your true passion lies. There are many paths to success, and just because your intended destination changes partway through, doesn’t mean that your success is any less meaningful. Let your passion guide you, but always be open to the idea that new passions are there for you to discover along the way.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that rejection toughens some for the rough journey, and weeds out the rest, those who don’t have the drive and ambition to succeed. If you know in your heart of hearts that you are meant to tell stories, and you are willing to put in the time and effort it takes to be counted among the best storytellers in the world, then no amount of rejection can stop you. It will only teach you how to improve and make you stronger. When you are constantly growing and learning, then it becomes a matter of when, not if, you will find success. The old saying is, “Fake it till you make it.” But I say, “Make it (your art), until you’re not faking it.” Make your art until your art is so good, no one can ignore it. Let rejection be your grindstone, your stepping stone, and the cornerstone to your successful career.

Go make your art, people.

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