What would you still do, even if you’re likely to fail?

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Last week a young acquaintance asked if she could buy me coffee and chat about developing her creative career. She’s just starting out and is struggling with finding her way. She mentioned in passing that she’s had to limit her engagement on social media — because seeing people’s highlight reel of opportunities, award winning, exhibitions and international adventures was making her financial and creative struggles feel extra painful.

“Like, look at you, you’re always winning all the things! Leave some for the rest of us would you! Ha ha.” As she spoke I thought, yeah who hasn’t felt that sting at some point of feeling lousy — and then even worse — because you measured yourself against someone else. It’s a perfectly natural thing to do. But also, how unfair to her — and to me — to be comparing her messy real life to my one dimensional highly curated online presence. She has no idea what is really going on in my life.

Our online profiles are unreal and distorted. Smoke and mirrors. We curate and project our best selves. We share what we have accomplished, not what didn’t take place, not the ways we were rejected, criticised or messed up. A light-hearted example of what I mean is this delightful video of Professor Robert Kelly being interrupted by his children during a BBC News Interview. Media life is not real life.

Heck, it’s even easy to trick yourself with your own projections. Who hasn’t looked back on photos from a trip and thought wow that was the best time ever only to slowly recollect that — hold on — don’t forget that 35-hour transit where you were in so much pain you cried, then had to sleep in the train station because you stuffed up the accommodation dates, then spent most of the rest of the trip looking for public toilets because you had gastro, oh and you were fighting with your boyfriend every few hours.

As all these thoughts unfolded I said, “look, if it makes you feel any better, just before I arrived to meet you I got another rejection email from a publisher. This is the fifth I’ve had this year. And that animation of mine that was nominated for the Frankie Good Stuff Awards — I’ve been submitting that to festivals and awards for the past three years with no-one showing any interest. Just because you are having success somewhere, doesn’t mean you aren’t also being rejection somewhere else.”

She laughed, “what! I can’t believe you ever get rejected! That’s not fair. You work so hard and your work is so good. I’d never know. You post so much about all your wins.” To which I replied, “of course I do, I only ever get about 5% of the things I submit to or apply for. That’s a 95% rejection rate, so you’ve really got to celebrate your wins! Also, it doesn’t really matter how hard I work or what’s fair! Some people like my work, some people don’t. It’s not up to me.”

Her comments got me thinking about how essential it is — if you live an uncertain creative life — to figure out a way to deal with regular rejection while continuing to courageously put your work out there, while at the same time being careful not to bank on external recognition as your only measure of creative success.

Author Mark Manson suggests, in his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F@ck, that developing healthy values is one way to deal with these challenges.

In his opinion, healthy values that those that are reality based, that can be achieved internally, that are socially constructive, immediate and controllable. Things like: honesty, vulnerability, standing up for oneself, creativity, self-respect and curiosity.

Whereas, unhealthy values are superstitious, socially destructive, dependent on external validation and are not immediately controllable. Things like: dominance through manipulation, feeling good all the time, being liked by everybody, and not being alone.

Put another way by Liz Gilbert in her book Big Magic, “conventional success depends on the convergence of talent, luck and discipline and the only thing you can ever really control is your discipline. And yet, hard work guarantees nothing in the realms of creativity. You have to create regardless of outcome.”

“Creative living is stranger than other, more worldly pursuits. The usual rules do not apply. In normal life, if you’re good at something and you work hard at it, you will likely succeed. In creative endeavors, maybe not. Or maybe you will succeed for a spell, and then never succeed again. You might be offered rewards on a silver platter, even as the rug is being simultaneously pulled out from under you. You might be adored for a while, then go out of fashion.”

“The patron goddess of creative success can sometimes seem like a rich, capricious old lady who lives in a giant mansion on a distant hill and who makes really weird decisions about who gets her fortune. She sometimes rewards charlatans and ignores the gifted. She cuts people out of her will who loyally served her for their entire lives, and then gives a Mercedes to that cute boy who cut her lawn once. She changes her mind about things. We try to divine her motives, but they remain occult. She is never obliged to explain herself to us. In short, the goddess of creative success may show up for you, or she may not. Probably best, then, if you don’t count on her, or attach your definition of personal happiness to her whims.”

Thinking about creative success like this, and realising that you only have so much control over what happens — as much as it is frustrating and a little depressing — certainly takes the pressure off. I find that reframing creative success like this helps remind me to continually redefine my own measures of success, and focus on being internally motivated. But still, rejection always stings.

Many artists have developed interesting ways to deal with this inevitable part of creative life. It’s also reassuring to know that even the likes of J.K. Rowling, Andy Warhol and Sylvia Plath received copious rejection letters.

Author Stephen King famously made a ritual of collecting rejection letters. From the age of 13 he pinned them to a cork board in his bedroom. In his mind, every no meant he was one step closer to a yes.

James Culleton, a Canadian painter turned his stack of rejection letters into an art project, laminating all the letters he received over a four-year period into a “suit of armor that will provide protection from future rejection.”

Catherine Wald, a writer who created a site that features her own rejection letters and those of other writers and artists — suggests that rejection is a “badge of honor” it shows that you have “taken risks, and broken taboos.” She was inspired to create her site, after writing a novel in 2001, then spending two years pitching it to publishers with no success. Being rejected so often made her feel “ashamed, as though it was a deep, dark secret.”

Thankfully, through her site, she came to realize her experience was one shared by many others. “I wasn’t alone. It’s not so shameful. A history of being rejected speaks to your professionalism. You’re willing to stick with your art.”

Challenges and rejection are an important and healthy part of the creative process. Criticism is to be expected if you are actuallyputting your work out there. You can’t please everyone. You will make mistakes. Sometimes you aren’t a good fit for a publisher or a show. Sometimes your work, your idea or application is actually a bit crap and you need to improve.

In the face of this, perhaps the question of what would you still do, even if you’re likely to fail — is a powerful way to stay anchored. What is it that lights you up? What do you feel proud of, even if no-one else understands or cares? What book, music, film or art do you want to see in the world?

In the words of civil rights leader Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

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I’m an award-winning comic artist, writer and graphic recorder. All words + images © Sarah Firth. Contact me www.sarahthefirth if you want to use them.

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