‘I allow myself a mini-wallow’: how to handle rejection in the arts

When Olivia Gagan landed her dream creative job, she didn’t expect to be fired just a few months later. But at the end of her probation period, in what was to be the biggest rejection of her life, the then 27-year-old was called into a meeting room with her boss and asked to leave the building immediately.

Gagan, a writer, remembers feeling humiliated as she packed up her things in front of her colleagues. “I’d never experienced anything like it before and I definitely had a big cry,” she says. “That particular job was what I had always thought I wanted, but it just didn’t work. It was a cocktail of things, including me not being a good fit for the role and not fitting in with the company culture.”

To top it all off, when Gagan went to the pub that evening to cheer herself up, someone stole her jacket. “I was so dazed that I wasn’t aware of my surroundings and it got nicked,” she says. “It was such a bad day.”

It’s rare to hear people talk about their professional knock-backs. A desire to impress employers, along with the pressure to market yourself on social media, can mean we only see part of the picture.

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But no matter how talented you are, if you work in the creative arts, you’ll likely experience rejection – whether it’s losing a job, or getting your ideas, art, funding applications, or pitches turned down.

Overall, the number of people employed in creative fields has increased at a greater rate than other industries in recent years. But as Rhiannon Drake, a musician and actor, says, rejection is “just part of the job”.

When you first start out, not getting a call back after an audition is hard, but it gets easier and you learn, Drake says. “Looking back, I used to treat the people who auditioned me as gods. But they’re just people the same as you.” Drake says she always does something to treat herself when an audition isn’t successful.

If you expect some knock-backs, you’ll be better prepared. When Thomas Davis, a freelance motion designer, saw a call-out for pitches that linked to his own work, he was confident he had it in the bag. “I thought this had to be a sure thing,” he said. But he didn’t get it, despite having “everything stacked in my favour”. It stings, but “as soon as you realise rejection is possible, you spend less time obsessing about it when it happens,” he says.

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So how can we handle rejection constructively?

Catherine Caldwell, a senior lecturer at University of the Arts London (UAL), says it’s important for students to be humble and prepared to listen to feedback.

It’s also about building resilience. The psychologist Martin Seligman says we can do this by using the “three P’s” – personalisation, permanence, and pervasiveness. In other words, don’t take a setback personally, don’t imagine it will go on forever – and don’t apply one small rejection (or one person’s opinion) to all areas of your life or career.

Our attitude towards failure will also make a difference. It helps to develop a “growth mindset”, which emphasises our ability to learn, rather than to have a “fixed mindset”, where we believe we either have innate skills or we don’t.

Rachel Lewis, a registered occupational psychologist, says we’re naturally more likely to focus on the negative, so making a note of all the ideas you’ve had accepted, or people who’ve liked your work, is a good idea.

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This worked for Paul Atherton, an experienced producer and managing director. After he missed out on a “heaven sent” opportunity to co-write a play with his favourite playwright, he posted a list of his successes on social media to encourage those starting out in theatre. “Reminding myself of all my achievements helped,” he says. “It also meant people commented on them, which lessened the blow.”

Gagan, now 31, found her feet as a freelancer and says her past setbacks built her resilience. “In a number of ways those months made me tougher,” she says. Despite this, knock-backs are never easy, and in the moment will likely hurt. “I’ve learnt to allow myself a ‘mini-wallow’,” Gagan says. So if you’ve missed out on a project you really wanted, heading straight to the pub, like Gagan did, might help. Just make sure you keep a close eye on all your belongings, or your day could be about to get even worse.

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