10 tips for handling rejection in the creative industry
The thing about making a living out of creative work is that you have to continually put your work up for the scrutiny of others in order to find opportunities. Whether you are approaching companies for commissions, applying for creative opportunities or posting personal projects on social media, it can sometimes feel quite vulnerable. With the rise of social media there is the potential for your work to reach a wider audience, but the flip side is that your work also has the potential for greater criticism (suddenly everybody is an expert in design). You can either choose to beat yourself up with a large wooden paintbrush, or you can use disappointment to push your work in new directions and learn from it. If you want a career in the creative industry you’re going to have to get used to rejection, so here are some things that might help..
1) Every creative faces disappointment
The more creative professionals you get to know, the more you hear about how prevalent disappointment is – knowing that rejection a part of the profession helps you to feel less like you’re completely losing your shit. Albeit pretty frustrating, It’s perfectly normal for prospective clients to ignore your requests for work and it should be expected that you will sometimes miss out on work to someone else more fitting, accomplished, reasonably priced, with better hair… and so on. It’s all good though, on another day you will be the one winning the work, so hold tight. I have had my fair share of unanswered calls and emails and unsuccessful portfolio reviews – in one the creative director* literally thrust my portfolio back into my hands and gave me a silent head-shake. In the end you realise that rejection is all part of the game and that no creative is exempt from it - yes, even the best ones on the planet.
2) Rejection is not always a reflection of your work
Don’t lose your head just yet, rejection is not always about bad work – it could be that you’re just contacting the wrong people. Or, maybe they’re the right people but it’s just the wrong time. It could be that you’re contacting children’s book publishers when your work is better suited to editorial, or it could be that you’re contacting agencies when you may be better contacting a specific industry. It’s all a little bit of trial and error. Try not to take it too personally and don’t beat yourself up – see it as a navigation tool towards the direction you want your work to head in.
3) Make sure you’ve considered context
Be aware of the context you have received the rejection in. Was it a bad time for the company you contacted? Were they busy or preoccupied? Had you been hounding them for months and starting to piss them off? They may have had a dozen other illustrators contact them that day or they may be in the middle of a deadline. Try to get into the other person’s shoes and understand that there could be other factors at play. I was once gutted that a creative director gave feedback that I didn't have any typography skills – it was only months later when I reassessed my portfolio that I realised I had only put illustration work in it. How were they supposed to know I was skilled in other areas if I didn’t show it in my work? Don’t assume people have checked out your website or profiles before they meet with you – make your first impression count.
4) Listen to the right people
You could have got the worst feedback in the world, but if it was from an old school mate on facebook, is this the sort of person who is going to be commissioning you? Discern whether this person has merit in your industry and, even if they do, are they speaking in order to be helpful or in order to put you down? Good feedback isn’t always what you want to hear, but it always leaves you with positive things to act on. Trust your gut with the people you take advice from and don’t just take on board everything everybody says to you – the likelihood is that a lot of the advice will be contradictory, even from experts. Be cautious even of positive feedback (of course your mum thinks your work is ace, she’s your mum ). Mull things over and test things out before you charge ahead with a change of direction.
5) Look for consistency
If you’re repeatedly getting the same feedback then you may need to listen up. There’s no point flogging a dead horse. We’re not simply talking about a repeated ‘no’ here though, it is more specific than that. If you’re repeatedly being told that your use of colour isn’t working for example, go take some time to try out new colour palettes. If the same thing keeps coming up about how you can’t draw hands very well, go and fill a sketchbook with studies of hands (it’s not rocket science). Keep a log of when you get positive feedback or which pieces of work get the most response when you post them and see if you can start to implement more of the same.
6) Channel the disappointment
Can you take anything positive from the rejection? Is there anything you can act on? Can you try different approaches with your work or the way you are promoting it? Sometimes disappointment is not only about your work, but about the direction you are wanting to head in. After a number of ‘rejections’ from design agencies, for example, I realised that I was not necessarily looking for the work they were offering but a sense of community with like-minded people. Since then I have tried to focus on building more of a creative community and to collaborate with others more. Similarly, can you bring in something else that will give your work more passion and drive? Or is there a part of your work that you are not as passionate about that you can drop? Don’t let disappointment become too personal, try to rationally decide which aspects of your work are working and which are not. By all means go punch a wall and cry into a pillow if it helps, but you can either quit or pick yourself up – and the phone while you’re at it – and try and push another door.
7) Take some time out
If you feel like you’re getting nowhere, now is a good time to take some time out before you end up hating something you once loved. If you’re scared you’ll lose momentum and passion by taking time out the chances are it’s not the right thing to pursue and will likely give you burn-out if you do. Do something else and re-focus. And if you’re scared you’ll be perceived as giving up, I once stopped drawing for seven years, so….
8) It’s not always right to persist
Just a note on being respectful of the people you contact. Often people will say things like ‘we’ve not got anything at the moment, but feel free to keep in touch.’ – in which case, feel free to contact them every so often with new updates. However, if someone tells you clearly that your work is not relevant to them then be respectful and don’t keep persisting – it is likely to do you more harm than good.
9) Be patient
When I first started freelancing I sent out hundreds of emails, the majority of which were ignored. I kept chasing up every so often, but still no response. I took this to mean that they had no interest in my work and so in my head the pile of rejections was mounting. To my surprise a number of those I’d initially contacted gave me work a year or so later (after I had completely disregarded ever working with them). Sometimes things take time so have a little patience before you conclude that someone isn’t interested in working with you.
10) Keep putting your work out there
Rejection is not a sign that you should give up – it may not be right to keep contacting the same people, but there are plenty more doors you can try to open. You may decide that you need to find other ways of paying the bills to facilitate your craft, but rejection should never be a reason to quit something you’re passionate about. Rejection should refine and challenge you and should become a part of your day to day work. If it’s not, then its a sign that you aren’t pushing any new areas and perhaps aren’t progressing. Rejection is a sign that you are taking risks and pushing doors. It’s okay to be pissed off if something you care deeply about has been rejected – being affected by rejection is a way of assessing how much you care about something and it makes you take stock of why you are in this and how much you want to keep going. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable and let disappointment shape you and your work in positive ways.
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Photo credits: Matthew Henry, Nicole De Khors