rejection versus failure

Abandoned teddy bear

As someone who’s not the best at dealing with rejection, I was drawn to a book I saw in the library called ‘Rejection Proof’ by Jia Jiang.  Jiang set out to conquer his fear of rejection by deliberately getting himself rejected once a day for 100 days, usually by making somewhat outrageous requests of complete strangers.  His ensuing adventures make for a great read in themselves, but there are other more solid things to take away from it.

The first thing that struck me was that he differentiates between rejection and failure.  The minute I read it, I knew exactly what he meant, but I hadn’t articulated the thought to myself before.  Whilst failure can be a stepping stone to doing better, rejection tends to stop us in our tracks.

“Rejection means that we wanted someone to believe in us but they didn’t; we wanted them to see what we see and to think how we think – and instead they disagreed and judged our way of looking at the world as inferior.  That feels deeply personal to a lot of us.  It doesn’t just feel like a rejection of our request, but also of our character, looks, ability, intelligence, personality, culture, or beliefs.  Even if the person rejecting our request doesn’t mean for his or her no to feel personal, it’s going to.  Rejection is an inherently unequal exchange between the rejector and the rejectee……..”

I know this is a big issue for myself in my life in general, but more specifically in my photographic life.  I was stopped in my own tracks for about six months after a particularly damning bit of feedback from a tutor.  I could recognise that the comments about my work were mostly quite valid – I cringe a bit when I look at the work now – but what felt devastating at the time was that the criticism was presented extremely unkindly and very judgmentally, and it seemed to me to imply that there was something very wrong with me, not just my photography.

And this is the bottom line.  Had our primitive selves been rejected by the group we lived in, we would most likely have been outcast and subsequently died.  That’s not the case now, of course, but it takes a long, long time for our biology to catch up with our culture, and our primitive brain’s perception that rejection contains the threat of death is quite enough to strike alarm into anyone.

We can rationalise our way out of this to a certain extent, but what some of us also have to deal with is an upbringing that reinforced the idea that we were worthless, and that our ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and even character, had no value.  This packs a huge double whammy of self-doubt.  Society will also work to reinforce those doubts if you’re not a white, middle-class male, adding another trickle of poison to thread through the glass.

Somehow, we have to learn to separate failure from rejection.  Recently I’ve been sending images off to various places, some in the hope of publication, others as entries in competitions.  I’ve had one success, and numerous failures.  There was a time when I would have taken the failures to mean that my photos were no good, when the reality of it is that luck and the personal taste of whoever’s making the judgements play a large part in it.  Moreover, I would also have taken it that there was something wrong with me and started berating myself for having the temerity to think that I was worthy of the prize.  One of the true joys of getting older is that you gain some ability to move past these self-defeating beliefs.

It’s noticeable that women are particularly bad at putting themselves forwards when it comes to photography.  Have a look at the winning entries in most photographic competitions and you’ll see that they’re mostly male.  Have a look at the books on photography, the articles in photography magazines, and the photography blogs online, and you’ll see that they’re mostly written by men.  The impression it leaves is that there either aren’t many women in photography, or they’re not very good, but both of these are far from the truth.  For many of us, we’re just very, very bad at putting ourselves out there.

Obviously this applies to some men as well, but I think women are more prone to a lack of self-belief and a fear of blowing their own trumpets, largely because of deeply-ingrained societal attitudes around what it means to be female.  So I’m proposing a challenge – whether you’re male or female, show your work in a way that scares you a little.  That might just be showing it to a friend or posting it on Facebook or Flickr, if that’s your personal challenge, or it might be submitting your work to a gallery or a competition, or trying for a merit award.  Let’s take a risk, accept the possibility of failure, and if it comes, remember not to see it as a rejection of our selves.