“Everybody said, ‘Follow your heart.’ I did, it got broken.” –Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles
“I really wish I was less of a thinking man and more of a fool not afraid of rejection.” –Billy Joel
When I was in my early twenties, I had the biggest crush on Miss California. Well, to clarify, she was not the reigning Miss California at the time, but she had been a few years earlier. We were in acting class together, and after a few weeks of class and getting to know her a bit, I came to the conclusion that she was perfect in every way. I was crushing hard! I REALLY wanted her to be my girlfriend. I kind of let a mutual acquaintance know I was interested, and we even went out in a small group once, sat by each other and had a great time. Her friend nudged me to ask her out for real. And I wanted to SO BADLY. But I just couldn’t do it. I justified it by telling myself I didn’t want to make our class awkward for her if she said no. But basically I didn’t do it because she wasn’t hunting me down and making glaringly obvious gestures—like messages on billboards or banners behind airplanes—begging me to ask her out. Never mind the logical thinking that would scream, “She is a global fashion model and, oh yeah, Miss Freaking California!!! Of course she has not ever needed to ask anyone out in her entire life! She is not starting now!” Nope, not even the obvious could make me pull the trigger on something I wanted so much and that seemed to be quite promising. I simply couldn’t risk rejection. I just didn’t dare. I could not stand the prospect of being told I was not good enough. And so, I let the opportunity slip away.
Here I am almost 30 years later, and you can bet I haven’t forgotten my cowardice. I’m ashamed of it. Not because she and I were going to live happily ever after or anything like that. No, I’m ashamed because I lacked the courage to go after something that could change my life for the better just because my ego might take a beating.
Miss California wasn’t the first crush I ever had that I failed to act upon. I have been a coward more times than I care to admit when it comes to asking people out on dates. I grew up in the place and time when, generally speaking, it was the boy who asked the girl to go out. I hated that rule! I would like to say that was because I was ahead of my time when it came to female empowerment. Really, I was just scared of getting my feelings hurt. If a girl—and later a woman—wanted me to ask her out, she basically had to hit me over the head with her eagerness about it before I was willing to take the risk. If she didn’t, well, it just wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t going to pursue.
I am embarrassed now not only about how hard I made people work and how vulnerable I made them feel just to get my affirmation, but also how much less Life I lived by being so scared to put myself out there. I could have had so many more deep, rich experiences with so many fascinating, wonderful people. I could have gotten closer to the marrow of Life, could have had a bigger ride. It’s a real shame. If only I had been willing to be rejected.
Rejection has been heavy on my heart and mind these last few months. I am swimming in it! And I can see why I was so scared of it, too, because it is no fun at all. It hurts! Down deep in the soul and all over the body. It hurts.
After I finally finished writing my first novel late last year, I started researching exactly how one goes about getting a novel sold to a real publisher who can get it into real bookstores and put real dollars in my pocket. Even though I started writing it just to see if I could do it and then continued writing it because I was having so much fun trying to create a real story, I realized partway through that I actually wanted an audience for it. I wanted readers. Of course, I also would really like to make a living putting words together. So, I had to admit the truth: even though I would have written the book for the pure joy of it alone, in the end I wanted someone to pay me for it, too. That meant I had to learn about a whole new world: the bookselling world. It is full of people and things like queries, synopses, pitches, agents, editors, publishers, and so much more.
As it turns out, there are tons of other fools like me at this very moment trying desperately to find someone to buy their novels, too. For that to happen, they have to pass through a few gatekeepers. The first is the agent. Literary agents get flooded with thousands of query letters every year from authors pitching their stories. If the agent thinks it sounds interesting, they get a sample and then maybe the entire manuscript. If they still like it, they agree to represent the book. But for every one they accept, they reject hundreds of others. And there are boatloads of these agents rejecting oceans of books.
Of course, to the authors of these books—their labors of love that they probably spent years of blood, sweat, and tears creating—it is not the book that is getting rejected but them personally. Many of the agents don’t even bother to respond if they aren’t interested. Others just send a form email to all of the rejects: “it’s not right for my list at this time” or “it’s not a good fit for me” and other such impersonal replies. To the authors, no matter what the wording, the rejections all land like this: “You are a really bad writer. Your idea is terrible. Give up. Find a new dream. You are worthless.” Imagine receiving that message dozens and dozens—maybe even hundreds for some writers—of times. It’s rough. Well, “rough” may be too vague. It’s horrible. It’s staggering. It’s humiliating. Yes, that’s it: humiliating.
While I am pleased to report that I have made it through this first wave of gatekeepers and am onto the second wave–the powerful people who might actually buy the book from the agent—there will undoubtedly be much more added to the pile of rejections. The, “It’s not right for us,” will continue to land like, “You just suck, William.”
On the rare occasions that I can pull myself out from under the dark cloud of all this humiliation, I find myself laughing about this whole game and what kind of crazy masochist I must be to subject myself to this level of repeated rejection. I guess the potential prize—saying someone bought my novel, a few bucks in my pocket, the feeling of living my dream–means that much to me. Because otherwise it really is insane. I mean, who in their right mind volunteers to get shot down so directly and so often?
It has me trying to think of people who live like this all the time. When I think of rejection, I think of telemarketers or old-school door-to-door salesmen getting hung up on, insulted, yelled at, or doors slammed in their faces. I could never do those jobs. I wouldn’t last a day. The only other people that come to mind immediately are other kinds of artists. I think of the actor going in for auditions and not getting the roles. Dancers and models, too. They go to the audition, show off their talents (or appearance) and skills that they may have worked a lifetime to perfect, and essentially ask, “Am I good enough for you?” And the answer is pretty often, “No, you are not.” It’s brutal.
When I put it in those terms, though, I am reminded of another group of people who subject themselves to that kind of vulnerability, just not for their jobs: daters. You know: people who are actively in search of romantic and/or sexual partners. The more open and assertive one is about their intentions, the more obvious and frequent the rejections, I would imagine. I am not exactly sure how dating and hook-ups work with modern apps—like, is it always clear you have been rejected, or is there some ambiguity about it?—but I imagine that even if the interaction doesn’t happen in public and even if you haven’t even met the person “in real life,” the pain of rejection is still there. And with these apps—I know I sound like I’m 100 years old when I talk about them like this, so I am laughing at myself and my ignorance as I write this—I imagine that the number of potential rejections is quite high. That has to be difficult.
Still, I think for most people in their ordinary work lives, they are not really facing true rejection on a frequent basis, if at all. When I go to work, I am never putting my ego and my feelings on the line. I don’t come home shattered from rejection or relieved and overjoyed that someone accepted me. My friends and family don’t really either. Oh sure, they may put in a bid for a project and get outbid, or ask for a donation and not get it. They may be told they are not doing well enough and need to do better to keep their job. They may get in an argument with a coworker or even have a customer complaint lodged against them. Criticism is a possibility for almost everyone on some level. But basically, most of us are wholly spared from true rejection in our day-to-day.
I’m not saying it’s a picnic to go to work for anyone and that we can’t all get our egos bruised from time to time by something someone says. But that is different than putting yourself and the work of your soul out there for to be judged on a plain YES-or-NO basis, with the odds of a NO being pretty darn high. That kind of raw vulnerability and defenselessness is not a scenario I wish upon anyone.
And yet, here I am also claiming it is worth it. I want my novel sold! I want that badly. I hope it not only sells into a hardcover book and then many reprints in paperback, I also hope it turns into a series of books and that the rights for those get sold to some Hollywood studio for a movie or television series. It is my baby, and I have big dreams for it. And if all of this rejection is the price I have to pay for a real shot at that, well, I have decided it is worth each one of these many gut-punches and blows to my ego. Maybe it’s because I feel like I am meant to do it. Like a calling. It seems like the thing I have to do in order to feel I am giving this life of mine a true go, like I am not being a coward and hiding from it just because it is difficult and ego-destroying. The potential regret of not putting it out there seems more agonizing than this heartache from all of the rejection. I guess you could say it’s worth it because my very soul is at stake.
So, would I summon this courage and conviction to subject myself to such a volume of withering and unrelenting rejection for anything else? That question stretches my imagination. I can’t think of any “regular” jobs I would do it for. Like I said, I have always hated anything “sales-y” where people are constantly telling you NO. I can’t imagine ever wanting to date again, even if were not married, so that doesn’t qualify for me. I would risk anything for my kids, but they are getting to the ages where I am trying to empower them to lobby on their own behalf. So none of the regular stuff seems to move me.
I guess the only thing that I can think of that I would be willing to risk this kind of baked-into-the-process rejection for is something else artistic. I mean, if I was so moved to create something from the depths of my soul—a painting, a photographic collection, some form of music, an acting performance—and felt that it would be more fulfilling with an audience involved, I could see subjecting myself to wholesale public rejection for that creation. It’s true that I almost certainly don’t have the talent for any of those things, but hey, a year ago I didn’t think I had it in me to write a novel either. I would love it if some other bit of magic sneaked up on me. Outside of some true soul creation, though—some “art”—I think I will skip this kind of rejection. It’s just not much fun.
How about you? For what in your life (or dream life) are you willing to risk consistent rejection? Open up your journal and find yourself in the moments that could leave you most vulnerable. Are there times in your ordinary schedule where you really put yourself out there in a way that your ego feels unprotected? How accepted do you feel at work both in the relationships you have there and in the actual work you do? Do you hear “NO” there very often? If you do, is it in a way that makes you feel rejected? How often is your work performance judged by your bosses? Does that process leave you feeling vulnerable? How about your non-work life? Do you have hobbies or interests that involve you leaving yourself open to judgment and rejection? Do you create anything or perform anything and enter it into contests? Do you try to sell your creations (arts, crafts, etc.) anywhere? When was the last time you applied for a job? Did it leave you feeling exposed in this way? If you didn’t get the job, did it feel like they rejected you? How about dating? Are you now, or have you been in your dating history, the one who sticks their neck out and does the asking? How do you take the NOs? As a personal affront? Are you able to let them roll off your back and keep going, or are you staggered by the rejections? Do you imagine the modern, app-based dating makes the rejection part easier or harder? If it has been a long time since you started a new relationship, how confident would you be in putting yourself out there in today’s world? Of all the ways you might leave yourself vulnerable to strong rejection—for a date, a work requirement, a passion project like my book—which ones, if any, do you feel are most worth the risk? Does it really just come down to whether the pain of potential regret for not having given your best effort to have what you truly want is bigger than the potential pain of rejection? If that is the calculus, what is your answer? Leave me a reply and let me know: For what are you willing to risk rejection?
May you summon the courage that Life demands,
P.S. If this topic resonated with you today, please share it with your community. Let’s support each other in living our most courageous, authentic selves.
P.P.S. If this way of examining your life appeals to you, consider buying my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.