Rejection is a tough thing. It's part of the human condition, but that doesn't make it hurt any less. When scientists put peopled in a MRI machine and asked them to recall a recent rejection, they discovered that the areas of our brains that become activated when experiencing rejection are the same as when we experience physical pain. So rejection hurts in a very literal way.
But rejection is ubiquitous for people working in creative industries. If you're an actor, you're know that auditioning inevitably means rejections at least some of the time. If you're a writer submitting your work, the same can certainly be said. Everyone experiences rejection in their career. I'm lucky to have found some success, like having the chance to work on a new play commission for the last six months and my adaptation of Frankenstein is published online, but it took a lot of submitting to find these opportunities that came through and that means a lot of rejections. If even one out of ten submissions or applications or auditions leads to a job (and money!) then you've got a good track record. So what about one out of a hundred?
I came across an idea a few years ago, I don't even remember where I first read it. It went something like this:
Aim to get one hundred rejections in a year.
Does that sound daunting to you? Or does that sound easy? I liked the idea immediately and decided to try it out. The way I took it was that you should go out for as many opportunities as you can and eventually you'll get some of them. For me, it's a way to reframe rejection or failure into something positive. Rejection becomes something to work towards throughout the year instead of things that you dread.
A big part of it for me is that it inspires me to submit for things I normally wouldn't submit for. Sometimes I see a call for submissions or I hear about a company that my work may align with and I think, "Nah, I probably won't get that opportunity" or "That's way out of my league!" But you know what? I submit to them anyway. Aiming for rejections, encourages me to get out of my shell and reach out to new things. On more than one occasion I've been delightfully surprised that I actually was qualified for something I submitted to. Seeking rejections, rather than seeking outcomes, also pushes me to look for more opportunities, to branch out to new artists and even into new forms of my artistic practice.
By focusing on the submissions itself, you push past the, "Oh, I'm not qualified for that". You're not focused on the end result, you're focused on the submission. It flips the script! When you do get rejected, that's good! That's what you want. You add that to your list (I keep a spreadsheet that organizes all my submissions with dates, who it's to, the outcome, etc.) and it counts as a win! It's one step closer to that goal of one hundred!
Funnily enough, sometimes when I land a gig or get a grant or succeed in some way my first reaction is "YAY!" and it's followed by "Oh, that's not a rejection, so I better get to submitting more!" It definitely puts things into a different perspective.
So how has this journey worked for me so far? The first year that I took on this challenge (2018), I submitted for 120 things. This included a range of prospects like script submissions, auditions, directing gigs, teaching contracts, festival applications, grant proposals, job interviews, and more. In the end I got 99 rejections! I was only one away (and looking back now I'm thinking, why didn't I find just one more company or artistic director to send a script to??). In my second year (2019), I submitted a total of 116 things and got 101 rejections (I did it!!). Could I look at this as 15 successes? Maybe. But 101 just feels so much more impressive! Last year (2020), I only submitted 76 things and got a measly 63 rejections. But a global pandemic was happening and I was focusing on other things and you know what? That's okay. I try not to be too hard on myself with these kind of things. If it works for me, I do it. If it doesn't, I don't.
So does this sound like it's not so bad now? Well, there's a few things to keep in mind. One thing I'm constantly trying to remember is that the quality of the submissions is still really important, not just the quantity. Sending out 100 copies of the same email to 100 publishers for your short story might get your story published, but taking the time to research which publishers specialize in your genre of work and which ones you personally connect with will likely increase your chances of success. On a personal note, I try my very best to find a name to address submissions to and always avoid "to whom it may concern." I receive enough submissions for my producing work in theatre to know little things like that go a long way.
Something else to note is that constant rejections can be discouraging. The way I look at it is, "What's the harm?" or "What's the worst that can happen? They say no?" These are good sentiments, but this work can also be very taxing. Some applications are very time consuming and take a lot of work and energy. If that's the case, I sometime asses if the time and energy is worth it. A lot of writing contests and festivals also have applications fees. How do I navigate these? It's simple: I tend to avoid them. Unless it's a company or a contest I have an established relationship with, I focus on things I can do that are free. So yes, it still takes up my time, but it doesn't put a big dent in my wallet.
Just getting a constant flood of rejections can be hard in itself too. But this works for me. It gives me a little bit of an extra boost when I don't feel like submitting for something. And I encourage you to try it to see if it works for you too. If you do give it a try, here are some things to keep in mind when pursuing you one hundred rejections:
Rejection is most often not personal. More often than not the rejection stems from things outside of your control, i.e. because you don't fit a certain circumstance or criteria. Don't blame yourself if you get rejected. Most of the time you have no idea what's going on behind the scenes, so it's easier to just assume the best and move on.
If you're getting a lot of rejections, spend some time focusing on what you're grateful for. Write down the things you already have that your thankful for. Gratitude Journaling is a surefire way to make you more happy—for more on that, check out Yale Professor Dr. Laurie Santos' work on happiness.
Remember that this is about learning from your mistakes and putting yourself out there. As Samuel Becket said, "Try again. Fail again. Fail better."