Even the biggest success stories (like ‘Harry Potter’ author J.K. Rowling) have experienced rejection. Let this advice inspire you to face up to a “losing” situation, and learn from it.
J.K. Rowling has long let it be known that despite the hundreds of millions of copies sold, the movies, and the theme park, Harry Potter was hardly an overnight sensation. Over the years, she has been open about the many rejections she received before Harry and his magical friends found a publishing home.
But last week, after tweeting that she tacked one of Harry’s rejection letters to her wall (because it gave her “something in common” with her “fave writers”), Rowling surprised fans by sharing two new rejections letters: ones that she received after Harry Potter had already flown on his Nimbus 2000 to the top of the best-seller lists. These later rejections came while submitting manuscripts of her pseudonymous adult fiction title, Cuckoos’ Calling.
Though one of the rejection letters simply explains they are not open to new submissions, the other, advises Rowling to do her homework before submitting manuscripts to certain publishers, to perhaps check out a writers group, or, say, take a writing class.
All excellent and common-enough advice, generally speaking. Except of course, in this case, it’s hilarious. J.K. Rowling was already a success beyond most writers’ wildest dreams.
Obviously, the poor editor (whose name was removed from the letter as Rowling was sharing for “inspiration, not revenge”) had no idea to whom he or she was writing. And, in fairness, though Cuckoo’s Calling was a terrific book, maybe Rowling—writing as Robert Galbraith—didn’t do her homework, perhaps the early draft could’ve used a good writer’s group critique (they all could, really).
Rowling shared these letters not to revel in her success, but to point out something important about humility, and persevering even when people close a few doors in your face. And those are lessons that aren’t just for J.K. Rowling fans, or even just writers.
Because everyone gets rejected at some point for something. It’s mostly a matter of when. And rejection is never pleasant. It can make us feel small, and unappreciated. Whether it’s a rejection letter from a publisher or from a job prospect, whether it’s learning you didn’t get the part you wanted, or that a school didn’t accept you. Whether you’re already a roaring success or whether you’re just squeaking by and could really use a yes. Rejection is never easy no matter whose shoes you’re in, probably because it feels like the close cousin of failure.
And yet, when we read letters like Rowling shared (or, when we check out some of these other great “rejects”), we gobble it up because it’s a reminder of the value of tenacity, and maybe even of the value of rejection itself. The truth of the matter is, if you look hard enough there is something to be gained every time rejection happens. In Rowling’s case, it helped her find courage in the face of fear:
“I wasn’t going to give up until every single publisher turned me down, but I often feared that would happen,” Rowling tweeted. She added, “I had nothing to lose and sometimes that makes you brave enough to try.”
Adopting an attitude of bravery is one of the best coping mechanisms for dealing with rejection and moving past it, says David Hendricks, MA, LCPC, a therapist in the Chicago area. Though Hendricks often works with clients freshly stinging from rejection, he also tries to help people prepare for what he calls the “greatness in daring something.” Because you must be equally brave to accept one rejection, as you must be to try again, facing the possibility of more no‘s down the road.
“If you’re going to live a life of value,” Hendricks says, “you are going to have to get that mindset that someone is going to say, ‘I’m not comfortable with what you’re doing or saying.'”
It’s always going to be hard to hear that someone else disapproves, but you’re better off risking rejection and bruising your ego a little than the alternative. It’s much worse psychologically, Hendricks says, to let your defeat transform into procrastination, or the pushing away of your dreams. Those are negative responses that, over time, can lead to crippling perfectionism, depression, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
So Hendricks advises mentally preparing yourself for rejection before setting out on your daring adventure, whatever it may be. First, allow rejection to be a real possibility, and think about it as an outcome. Hendricks asks clients, “What would that be like if you went out to do that? What are your fears?” And then encourages people to make sure they’re not “wanting to do master-level work without an undergrad.”
Consciously uncouple your ego
Rejection is often a little easier to stomach when you look at the bigger picture. Hendricks says we must learn to separate the act from the person. As a therapist (and as a musician in his spare time), he understands that, “performance and who we are, are very linked together.” Essentially, we’ll all need to pull a Gwyneth Paltrow and “consciously uncouple” ourselves from our egos in order to focus on just the work at hand, even if that work feels very personal.
Though, according to Ron Lee, Chief Creative Officer at The Word Bureau, Inc., and a former editor with Penguin Random House, that doesn’t mean ignoring those rejection letters altogether. When someone says no, Lee advises, asking yourself: Why did I receive this rejection letter?
“Keep in mind that a rejection letter says little or nothing about who you are, your ability to connect with an audience, or your facility with words,” Lee says. “It does, however, tell you a lot about the publishing house and what’s selling or not selling.”
Lee also says to pay extra attention if someone has taken the time to write you a personalized rejection letter. It was when a writer showed promise that he would be willing to add some “coaching” to the letter, which can prove invaluable if you’re willing to hear their wisdom. You may disagree with the opinion being expressed, of course, but feedback from the person you’re trying to convince is always helpful.
So think about the rejection, try to learn from it, but by no means let it cripple you. (While you’re practicing the Gwyneth art of conscious uncoupling, it seems you’ll also need to take a verse from Taylor Swift, and learn to “shake it off.”) Lee goes on to say, “If receiving a rejection letter causes you to question your talent, ability, or self-worth, you need to rethink being a writer,” or whatever other art or business you are trying to pursue. You need to believe in your work enough to not let a few rejections stop you in your tracks.
Rejection has two sides
Susan Tjaden, an editor with the WaterBrook and Multnomah Imprints of Crown, says, “The hardest rejection letters for me to write are ones to people whom I know have poured their hearts and souls into the project—but maybe the author has no platform or their writing is pretty poor or they’re writing a book that hundreds of others have already written. Those are the people I think will take the rejection the hardest, so I try to soften the blow as much as I can. I want them to know what they are doing well—but also to be as realistic as possible about the shortcomings, as sensitively as possible.”
Tjaden says writing rejection letters is “definitely one of the worst aspects” of her job.
“I’ve been an editor for over ten years, and saying no to someone’s dream never gets easier,” Tjaden says. “In fact, if it ever does get easy, I need to find a different job. If I reach a point where it doesn’t hurt to tell someone that their hard efforts are basically going into my recycle bin, I’ve lost a part of my own humanity and sense of empathy. In other words, I would have lost the very thing that is my strength as an editor.”
Sometimes it helps to remember that there is another human on the other end of your rejection letter, trying to do a job, and sometimes even trying to help you reach your dreams, even if it’s with a carefully considered no.
That no, unfortunately, will always be scary. Even for the great JK Rowling—the woman who held Voldemort’s future in her hand! But scarier still is a life without risk, a life without stepping out, growing and moving forward past rejection to do whatever it is you feel you’re meant to do.
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