A little while back I watched a video (after the jump) that completely changed the way I think about rejection and failure. Marie Forleo was interviewing actress Bryce Howard and Howard told the story of her grandmother’s advice to her when she started her acting career. Her grandmother said that most working actors will go on an average of 64 auditions before booking a job. 64! That number is even higher for people who are just starting out or are returning to the industry after a break.
When Howard started auditioning she said, “I started counting. And I promised myself I wouldn’t get upset if I didn’t book something before 64 because that would be deluded thinking.”
Everyone always says that it’s hard to make a living in the arts. And it’s true. The odds are against actors and artists and musicians because there are so few jobs and so many of us who want to have a go at it. But this interview showed me that making it in the arts isn’t necessarily about luck or being more special than everyone else who’s trying: it’s about sticking with it through the countless rejections until someone is willing to hire you or pay you. Most actors give up long before they hit that 64 audition mark so if you’re willing to keep trying when everyone else has quit, your odds will improve.
You might be thinking, “That sounds miserable! Why would you want to put yourself through that kind of torture?” But after watching this video, I realized that it doesn’t have to be torture. Rejection only hurts because of the story that we tell ourselves about it, stories like, “I don’t belong,” “I’m not wanted,” “I’m not good enough, or “I’ll never make it.”
What if we could separate rejection from the stories that usually come with it? What if we could stop equating rejection with failure? How much more would we be willing to work towards our dreams if we could look at it as a matter of statistics, just having to make our numbers?
Tiffany Han said in this interview that she was talking with some friends about that exact idea – what would life be like without the fear of rejection? – when she came up with her 100 rejection letters project. She used the idea of rejection as fuel for her ambition and drive and put herself out there on a level that she never had before. In the end, she had to scrap the project because she got so many exciting yeses that she didn’t have time to aim for rejections. Normally we think of rejection as a bad thing that reflects poorly on us, but Han proves that rejection can be a powerful motivator instead. In this post she asks, “How do you want to fail?” Do you want to fail because you tried a few things, got rejected and gave up? Or do you want to fail after you’ve tried absolutely everything and given it all you had? I would argue that the second option isn’t even a failure – if you give it everything you have, that’s success in itself because it’s so rare.
Jia Jiang has also become a sort of rejection expert. When he was rejected by an investor for his startup he felt crushed, to the point where he didn’t think he could ask for money from anyone else. He realized that this crippling fear of rejection had to go, so he started doing rejection therapy: he also aimed to get 100 rejections from strangers in order to build up his tolerance to rejection. Along the way he learned a lot about human kindness and how to stand up to our fears instead of running away. In one of his Tedx Talks he says, “I learned that I could accomplish my life’s dream, just by asking.”
In my efforts to sell my art and run my own business I’ve experienced my fair share of rejection, and it definitely stings. When I got a form email saying that the craft fair I’d been selling at for years didn’t have a spot for me, I tried not to take it personally but still felt like I was being kicked out of the club. When friends of mine had their art chosen for a project that I had felt I had a really good chance at, I was happy for them but felt really sad that I hadn’t been chosen.
It might be asking too much to say, “don’t let rejection bother you” because it can be super painful. But I think it is fair to say, “don’t let rejection stop you.” It is a statistically necessary part of life because there is no way that we’ll get everything we ask for. People will inevitably tell us no. And we can either decide that the world is against us and stop trying, or we can wear our rejections like a badge of honor, as proof that we are doing the work we need to do. We can even go a step further and aim to “collect” rejections, as this writer’s friend advised her to do. When you shoot for 100 rejections, you’re bound to get some acceptance along the way. Tiffany Han did, and so did Jia Jiang. Bryce Howard said that she was ready to go on over 100 auditions when she was first starting out, but it turned out she only had to do 48.
This is something that I’m planning to do with my own career. Since I announced my decision to go full time with my art in 2018, I’ve been thinking about what it will take to get me to that point. And I think that collecting rejections is a great place to start. I already have several from this year that I’m quite proud of and I look forward to seeing what I will get rejected from in the coming 13 months.