Rejection—it’s an inevitable part of life as a professional musician. Whether it’s a “thanks, but no thanks” response you get, or radio silence when your email pitches go unacknowledged, rejection is simply part of the package of being a pro. But how to handle rejection in an unfair music profession—there’s the rub.
Of course, when the rejection makes sense (we know we didn’t perform at our best in an audition) that’s one thing.
But there’s also plenty of evidence around us of the unfairness of our profession. Times when we can’t understand how this person got hired or how that person won the audition. Or we can’t believe we’re being rejected yet again.
How do we make sense of rejection and unfairness? Do we take it personally?
The truth is, selection committees and other gate-keepers operate with a logic we aren’t privy to. We can’t know all of their priorities or pressures, nor can we ever know for sure what they think of our work. In the end, many of these decisions are subjective matters of taste and fit.
So beware of relying on external validation to keep you motivated. If you need the approval of others to feel that you’re good enough, then you’re setting yourself up for life-long heartache and disappointment.
In order to muster the resilience to keep going despite rejections, you need to be able to self-validate. To be committed to doing the work and to keep doing it every day. Regardless of outcome.
Otherwise, you open yourself to a pit of resentment, frustration, and disappointment.
Bottom line: the WAY you respond to rejection makes all the difference in the world.
For many, it’s the difference between staying “in the game” for the long haul—or else giving up and settling for a career that’s more predictable and less fulfilling.
Here’s my own rejection story.
When I was writing the first edition of Beyond Talent I sent proposals to more than 20 publishers. Not one of them was interested.
And early on, I’d been given advice not to bother with Oxford University Press, that they were only interested in academic books, not self-help career guides.
I also shopped around for an agent. I even had a first agent who offered to send my proposal off to a short list of specialized publishers and if nothing came through, we’d go our separate ways.
Well, nothing came through with the agent or on my own:
It was Zip. Zero. Nada.
My last ditch attempt was to send it to Oxford University Press on my own. I figured, what did I have to lose?
Did the rejections get me feeling discouraged at times? YES. Did I think, “I don’t know if I should keep going?” YEP.
But I was committed to seeing the project through, and to becoming a better writer. Why? Because doing the work was teaching me not only how to be a better coach but a better person.
I was committed to the writing and to finding out how to get my work out there. If I couldn’t find a publisher I was also considering self-publishing.
But then, against all predictions, Oxford said yes.
And an agent I met at a summer writers program even helped me negotiate the contract.
After all those rejections, this seemed like a dream.
What came after too, still feels unreal: lots of speaking engagements in the US and abroad, and lots more learning and coaching. Five years later I had an expanded second edition, and Beyond Talent was also translated into Japanese and Chinese.
And now there’s a third edition coming, newly revised with Hero’s Journey material and more, which will be out later this year.
The point of my story is this: if I’d stopped after the first or second, or 15th rejection, I wouldn’t have gotten the book published and I wouldn’t have the career I’ve had because of it.
So what was the story I told myself through all the rejections?
The story wasn’t “This is hopeless” or “Who am I trying to fool here, I have no business writing this book.” (Although, of course I had moments of that.)
And it wasn’t, “What’s the matter with these publishers: Why are they rejecting something that’s clearly amazing?!”
The story I was telling myself was that it was my job to improve. I believed in the project so I asked myself, “How can I do a better job in the proposal?” And “How might I strengthen the sample chapters?”
To help, I attended writer seminars to get professional feedback that challenged me. My commitment was to do the work, no matter what the outcome.
I didn’t know it then, but I see this clearly now in myself and my clients:
How we respond to the inevitable rejections and unfairness of the profession is a choice.
Let’s look at a few of the available options. After a rejection you can choose any one or combination of the following . . .
1. Become depressed and take time off to feel sorry for yourself. Yep, we all need to lick our wounds, but then what’s the story you’re telling yourself? And what kind of attitude are you adopting when you finally climb back in the saddle?
Typical stories musicians tell themselves after disappointments include “I’m a loser,” “That was rigged,” “I can’t catch a break,” and the ever popular, “I’m never going to amount to anything.”
2. See yourself pitted against your circumstances. The story is “everybody is against me” and “this shouldn’t be happening to me.” If you see the world as a series of closed doors with people actively preventing you from succeeding, that’s what you’ll experience.
3. Get angry and resentful. And go around holding a grudge. After all, the profession IS unfair. Of course, life itself is unfair, but you may not be willing to acknowledge that. Instead, you personalize it.
Unfortunately, anger isn’t something we can compartmentalize. It eats at our stomach lining and impacts every area of our lives and all our relationships. That’s a high price to pay for this response choice.
4. Decide you don’t have what it takes: so you play it safer in your career. You decide to stop challenging yourself and only go after things that are well within your comfort zone. You avoid ambitious projects, telling yourself you’ll wait until you’re ready or more confident. Which is never.
The thing is, most of us don’t realize we’ve made a choice.
The choice of how we respond determines the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we’re capable of. We just don’t realize that we’re walking around seeing the world through lenses we’ve created.
What’s the better choice?
5. Get back to work. You know you can’t control the gatekeepers’ decisions so you don’t waste time and energy being resentful and angry. Instead, you stay in your own lane and focus on the process: the work you’re fascinated by.
Here’s Steven Pressfield on what it takes to stay in it for the long haul: “In real life, depth of commitment is more important than talent. It’s more important than beauty or skill, more important even than luck, because its produce is perseverance, endurance, tenacity.”
If we choose to be committed to the work—the process as opposed to the outcome—there are two sides to this:
The daily artistic work
The daily career work: managing the business of your art
The commitment has to be there for both.
Make no mistake, one without the other won’t do. You can’t simply make music and expect an audience to find you.
You need to get out and make things happen. Take risks, pitch yourself and your music, create opportunities and learn from the feedback you get. And expect the rejections as part of the process.
Get it going
Here are the top three books I recommend to help musicians around mindset and handling rejections. These have been enormously helpful to me and my clients. They are:
Making Your life as an Artist by Andrew Simonet. Available as a FREE PDF.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Especially the section on “Turning Pro.”
The Courage to be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga. My most recent fav discovery!
Do you have a question for me about dealing with rejection in an unfair profession? Hit me up in our free Facebook group. Happy to have you join the conversation and the supportive community!
Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well