This is a note to self, a journal of sorts. You might find it relevant too…

The other day I came across a book that looked interesting. I was familiar with the author’s work (the author is at the apex of their field) so my first thought was to click the ‘Buy Now’ button, and yet, for reasons that aren't clear to me, I hesitated. Maybe I was trying to exercise discipline in telling myself I was surrounded by dozens of books I haven't read. Maybe I craved some sort of external validation, something to nudge me over the fence and convince me that buying the book was a good idea. Maybe it was just typical procrastination. I'm not sure what it was, and I'll probably never know. Either way, after hesitating and procrastinating for a while, I clicked the link and landed on a popular e-commerce platform, you know the one. 

The moment I landed on the platform, my eyes were drawn straight to the reviews section so I figured I might as well check them out. Sure enough, a preponderance of them were glowing 5-star reviews. This made sense, the author is an expert after all. What struck me as odd, even though it shouldn't have, was the number of 1-star reviews. I've previously written about how the people most motivated to leave reviews are those that really love or really hate a product or service, so it hardly ever shocks me when I come across a popular product with lots of negative reviews, but this one made me think twice. Not only that, it started me down the path to writing this post. 

I've been writing about our double-sided relationship with art – as creators and consumers of creative works – for the past few weeks, and this post is no different. This week, I'd like to examine something close to my heart: the fear of rejection. This probably isn't the only post I'll write about rejection, so I'll treat this as the first in the series. 

But first, back to my book buying story. I dwelled a little on the reviews, read a few good ones, and bad ones too. Next thing I knew, I'd spent an hour looking at reviews, and yet I was more confused than ever. How could it be that people could talk about the same book so positively and so negatively? I couldn't figure out what it was about the book that prompted such polarising reviews, I hadn't read the book after all.

I decided to look up the reviews for a few works I'm familiar with. I searched for a few bestselling books and read some of the reviews. I checked out some top-grossing movies and their reviews. As I skimmed through the reviews, I started to see a pattern. Across categories – science books, fiction novels, documentaries, and movies – no matter the public perception of each work – flop or success – there were people that loved it to their bones and people that hated it to the ends of the earth. 

This was a startling realisation, partly because it's something I should have known. It's something I didn't need to figure out, something obvious on the surface, and yet, it's something for which I seem to need a daily reminder. It’s the old expression that you can't please everybody, and germane to this post, not everyone will appreciate your art, no matter how good it is. 

Not everyone will appreciate your art; this is gut-wrenching. Another way to say this is you'll get rejected a lot; that’s the bad news. The good news is that it’s okay. It has taken a long time for me to realise this and I still struggle with it on a daily basis, hence the note to self. 

The life of a creative is filled with having to sell yourself, your brand, your art, your craft. Whether you’re applying for festivals, or pitching songs to playlists and radio stations, or sending queries to book agents and publishers, you'll face an endless stream of rejection. It may take the form of a playlist curator telling you that your music style isn’t popular enough to be worthy of consideration, or dozens of canned, samey responses from publishing agents, letting you down gently in unequivocal terms that they’re not willing to take up your book. Each rejection may chip away at your resolve, pierce your shield, and break you down, but all you need is one acceptance. More often than not, that acceptance needs to come from within, from you.

If you’ve ever grappled with rejection, and I’m willing to bet that you have, then you know just how potent the feeling can be. The bitter taste it leaves in your mouth, the nagging voice in your head that causes you to perpetually doubt yourself, the damning feeling that stays with you, even when you come upon evidence to the contrary. This is to say, like most people, you probably have naysayers and cheerleaders, people that slam the door in your face and people that receive you with open arms, people that ignore you and people that chant your name, and yet, you’re more likely to pay attention to the former group than the latter. There’s a reason for this.  

Studies suggest that we evolved to pay attention to negative stimuli, more so than positive ones. This was, and remains crucial to our survival as a species. Imagine for a moment, that you’re one of the early humans chilling on the open plains of prehistoric civilisation. You hear ruffling sounds in a bush nearby and you think, it could be a predator, or maybe just a strong breeze. Now you have a decision to make. 

On one hand, you could always take the optimistic route and do nothing since it's probably just the breeze. You could be right, and you’ll carry on as you were. Or you could be wrong, and you’d be lunch. That’ll be the end of you, the end of your line, and you won't live another day to pass on your genes. 

On the other hand, you could always err on the side of caution and assume it’s a predator. You could be wrong of course, and you’ll have the minor inconvenience of having to run for cover when there’s nothing there. Or, you could be right, and you’ll be vindicated that you’ve escaped a predator and you get to live another day, to hunt, and gather, and procreate.

That inconvenience, that emphasis on the worst-case scenario, that perpetual anxiety is a small price to pay for the survival and proliferation of our species. This is why many generations later, we tend to catastrophise, dwell on the negatives, and focus on the worst-case scenario. 

When I think about it, I get positive feedback on my art just as much, if not more than the rejection I get. The problem is it’s all too easy for me to forget the positive feedback. It’s all well and good when I get the compliments, the gig invitations, the writing feedback, but it all flies in the face of one harsh comment from an online troll, or a boilerplate rejection email from a festival I forgot I applied to. 

Once we realise that our tendency to dwell on the sting of rejection gets in the way of our forward momentum, it begs the question, what to do? Here are some ideas…

First, we can accept that this is how we’re built, that rejection will always carry a sting. Once we accept this, it frees us from thinking we can control the circumstances and lessen the intensity of this sting. There’s a tendency to think we need to work harder, perfect our craft and achieve more success to silence the critics. Surely when you’re successful you won’t face any rejection, right? Not quite. What will happen, is that you’ll only widen your pool, exposing you to more critics and opening you up to more rejection. 

There’s a profound conversation in the last season of Ricky Gervais’ After Life. It’s between Brian, a middle-aged man with a failed marriage who struggles to hold down a job, and James, an early twenties man who lives with his mum. They bond over how much they have in common and sulk at the realisation that they’re outcasts, not living the lives they wish, and are largely perceived as ‘losers’ by society. James is an aspiring actor on the brink of giving up because his prospects and opportunities are limited. He bemoans his situation and confesses to Brian, who’s just as miserable on the surface, but Brian offers some uncharacteristically sage advice. Brian says to James ‘...you thought if you were famous, people would respect you more…’ Brian goes on to say that James is a loser in a small town, which is great because nobody knows he’s a loser. If he gets his wish and becomes famous, he’ll still be a loser, but then everybody will know it. This conversation stayed with me, and it brought with it the realisation that neither fame, nor fortune, nor a bigger platform will change who you are. As your art gains prominence, you'll find more people that appreciate it and loathe it in equivalent measure.

Case in point, consider Adele and Ed Sheeran, two of the most successful and best-selling pop stars of the last decade. When they promote new content online, say by posting on social media about a new record, people flock to the comments to spout hateful speech. A lot of them are trolls and keyboard warriors no doubt, but amidst the interspersed swooning and fawning fans, there’s often a collective disgust so palpable that emanates from the screen when you dive into the comments. The comments read like there’s a mob in the town square shouting about how they can’t stand Ed Sheeran’s music because it’s formulaic, or Adele’s music because it’s bland. These aren’t my opinions, I should say. I enjoy their music, and even if I didn’t, I would still appreciate their artistry. They’ve worked hard to get to where they are, they’ve put in the time and effort, and it shows. 

There’s a vociferous mob in the town square who want nothing more than to shout Ed Sheeran and Adele to the ground, and yet, they consistently sell out venues. They play the biggest stadiums worldwide when they tour. They top the charts and smash the sales and streaming records. This paints a contradictory picture and it begs the question, if people hate them so much then who are all those people buying tickets, CDs, and all that vinyl? Well, the simple answer is, it’s you and I, or rather people like you and I, people that love Adele and Ed Sheeran, people that walk amongst us. Because just as there’s a mob that’s all too eager to scream their distaste of Adele’s and Ed Sheeran’s music, so too there’s a group of people that love the same music. These people are just not as loud as the mob. Or maybe they are, but they hardly come within earshot. These people are all around us, but perhaps they’re just not in our vantage points. I don’t know Adele or Ed Sheeran personally, but I know enough to know that despite the barrage of criticism, they still thrive, and rightfully so. This underscores the idea that old Brian in After Life tried to impart on young James, that fame isn’t a panacea to anyone’s problems. Irrespective of one’s standings, there’ll be good press and bad press, there’ll be fans and critics. 

While I was putting this post together, I went for a walk and I saw a billboard advertising Ed Sheeran's latest tour. I didn't even know he's touring again, but apparently they've released tickets for new dates in my city, and he's playing the stadium four days in a row this month. That's about sixty thousand people per night, for four nights, to cater to his fans in and around one city alone, yet his critics are louder than ever.  

It is such a curious fact, that you can be successful and still have critics. You can be top of your field and still have people turn away from your work and wring their noses in disgust. Does this mean you’re condemned to an endless stream of rejection stings for all eternity? Certainly not. 

A few months ago I listened to an Episode of psychologist Adam Grant’s WorkLife podcast in which he featured comedian Taylor Tomlinson. She shared a coping mechanism for dealing with rejection that stayed with me, and it revolves around four words: just not for me. Some people will come across your art and their first thought will be ‘just not for me.’ Not everyone will appreciate your music style or genre, not everyone will appreciate your sense of humour, not everyone will vibe with your painting technique, not everyone will love what you do, and that's okay. Still, you owe it to yourself to pursue your art. You have music, stories, and artefacts inside you that you and only you can gift to the world. You are uniquely placed to make the art you make, don't let a few critics put you off.

Second, it helps to realise that negative stimuli weigh stronger on the mind than positive ones. This applies to both current emotions and future prospects. 

A proponent of this idea is Daniel Kahneman who, together with his late collaborator, Amos Tversky, won a Nobel prize for the research on prospect theory, which stems from loss aversion. The idea is that the prospect of loss is more painful than the prospect of gain is pleasurable. Simply put, if you had £100 and you were faced with the chance of gaining an extra £50 or losing £50 of what you already have, you'll be more motivated to prevent losing £50 than gaining £50. It's a £50 change in either direction, but the potential loss bears more on the mind than the potential gain.

So what do we do? Psychologists advise that we should extol positive stimuli over negative ones. Given that we're inclined towards dwelling on the negative, we have to actively and consciously seek out positives to balance the scales that are already tipped the other way if we are to stand a chance. It could take the form of keeping a journal of the nice things people say about your music at gigs, or keeping screenshots of good reviews your clients leave you online. Armed with these, on bad days when it feels like the mob is on your doorstep, you can retreat to a safe space and read them to remind yourself that the good crowd is out there somewhere too.

I still squirm when I remember that I was rejected by at least 30 agents and publishers when I sent out my last book query, the same book that has now been accepted by a publisher and is currently in the production process. This story is typical too. Frank Herbert’s Dune, the most successful science fiction book of all time, was rejected over 20 times before it got published. Stephenie Meyer's Twilight was rejected 14 times, and Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected 30 times. The most successful authors in history have faced, and still face rejection on a regular basis, so this tells me it comes with the territory. 

I know I shouldn’t dwell on the rejection, I know it’s par for the course, I know it’s an occupational hazard, and yet my mind can’t seem to get off it. I almost spat out my coffee when, a few weeks ago I got an acceptance email from a second publisher for the same book, several months after I’d queried them, and long after I’d signed a contract with my current publisher. Just a tad late, that one. Funny how these things turn out. 

I’ve been rejected and ignored by countless promoters, festivals, and music venues, but when I stop to think about some of the gig opportunities I’ve had, my heart warms. I opened for a fantastic Scottish band, Dictator, two months ago, and I wasn't exaggerating when I took to social media to say it was one of the best outings of my music career to date. I got that gig through the most serendipitous of circumstances, via a connection of a connection of a connection…on social media. 

A month from now I’ll be supporting Dave Hemingway’s new band, Sunbirds. Yes, the Dave Hemingway of The Beautiful South. I got that gig because I met a couple at an open mic I turned up to randomly last summer. The couple asked for my name and number after my set, and reached out to say they run a music venue and they would love to put me on for a few gigs. Not only that, their venue is one of many lucky enough to host Sunbirds on their tour, and they thought of me as a suitable opening act. By the way, if you’d love to come see me live, you can get tickets to the gig here. There’s my daily self-promotion out of the way. 

When I think about the promoter I connected with on social media or the music venue owner I met at an open mic, I think: Here’s someone that owes me nothing, and yet has gone out of their way to set me up with this amazing opportunity. Truly heartwarming. 

Negative stimuli are just more salient than positive ones, this holds true in all aspects of our lives. This is why, as an aside, relationship researchers like John Gottman offer the science-backed recommendation that successful romantic relationships should maintain at least five positive interactions for each negative one. In this vein, it may take a giggle, a laugh, a kiss, a silly moment, and a mindful chat combined, to counterbalance the effects of one micro-argument about taking out the trash or doing the dishes. 

Similarly, bad news festers longer and travels around quicker than good news, which is why we tend to think things are getting worse in the world. There are a lot of bad things going on, no doubt. There’s a war in Europe, a genocide in Asia, a famine in Africa, civilian massacres in America, a virus that just won't go away, and many things in between, but psychologists like Steven Pinker posit that when you step back and look at the big picture, things are actually getting better. 

A look at various quality of life metrics – life expectancy, child mortality, global poverty levels, crime levels, and many more – indicates that things have been getting better for decades. The average person today has a better quality of life than the who's who of society had 100 years ago. The reason we don't realise we're all better off, as Steven Pinker puts it, is due to a combination of factors. 

For one thing, we’re surrounded by bad news on TV and social media. These things stay with us and remain foremost on our minds, thus we draw on them when we think about the state of the world. This is a cognitive bias known as the availability heuristic, which states that we tend to elevate the prominence of information that’s readily available over information that is harder to come across. 

Furthermore, good things tend to happen gradually while bad things tend to happen suddenly, for the most part. When world poverty levels decline, it’s a good thing that happens over years and decades, but when a nuclear power plant erupts, it’s sudden and unexpected, and is therefore more likely to make headlines. For this reason, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll tune in to the news one morning and see a headline like ‘over 100 thousand people escaped from poverty yesterday, and this has happened every day for the last 25 years,’ and let’s be honest, in today’s social media landscape characterised by angst and driven by highly-emotional content, how many of us tune in to the news to see what good things are happening in the world? 

Third, if we accept that we'll face rejection, and recognise the salience of negative stimuli over positive ones, then we can take steps to reshape and reclaim our attention to seek out positives. Much of our outlook on life comes down to what we focus on. We can choose to focus on the positives or the negatives, but in truth, we need a healthy mix of both. Focussing exclusively on the positives isn’t ideal; that’s a recipe for oblivious cluelessness or cloying optimism, and both roads lead to toxic positivity. On the other hand, focussing exclusively on the negatives isn’t ideal either; that’s a recipe for crippling anxiety. But a hearty portion of the positives to spur you on when you’re down, with a sprinkling of the negatives to give you an idea of what can be improved, now that’s a winning formula. 

I can't overstate the importance of attention because what you focus on grows in your mind. For instance, have you ever found yourself overwhelmed by an important purchase you're contemplating, like your next car or a pair of shoes? Let's assume you're in the market for a white Toyota Prius or burgundy doc martens. As you contemplate the purchase, something odd starts to happen; you begin to see them everywhere. Suddenly it feels like one in every five cars is a white Prius and you see at least three people a day in burgundy doc martens. There's a name for this, psychologists call it the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, after the German militant group (also known as the Red Army Faction) from the 70s. The term was coined in the 90s after someone wrote a letter to a newspaper column stating that after he heard about the group randomly, he came across it again from another source. After the newspaper published the story, others wrote in to say they had similar stories to share, and thus the term was coined as the phenomenon got more attention among scientists.

This phenomenon is a combination of the recency effect, the frequency illusion, and the confirmation bias. What happens is that the moment you make up your mind that you want the white car or the burgundy shoes, your senses become heightened to them, and your brain starts to scan your environment for them. It isn't the case that more people start to drive white cars or wear burgundy shoes, you just start to notice it more. When you notice it, it registers in your mind so you remember it (recency effect). Your mind keeps scanning for this thing you've recently noticed, and you notice it again (frequency illusion). Now there's a pattern, except, there isn't really a pattern, but you tell yourself there is because you want to believe there is (confirmation bias), and so the cycle perpetuates. In short, your brain makes the decision to allow this specific stimulus to pass through your attention filter. Funny little thing, your brain.

Speaking of filters, did you know you can always see the bridge of your nose in your field of view but your brain makes an executive decision to filter it out? How insane is that? Are you moving your eyes in their sockets right now, trying to get a clear glimpse of your nose? Has your attention shifted from this post? Please come back. By the way, the same is true for the bespectacled among us, only this time it’s the frames around our lenses. 

Not only does your brain filter things out, it also makes stuff up. Not only does it exclude things that are there, it inserts things that aren't. For instance, did you know you have a blind spot, as in an actual portion of your vision that's just blank? Your two eyes take in separate images that overlap slightly and are offset at an angle; this is crucial for depth perception and spatial navigation. It’s the same idea that is replicated by cinema 3D goggles and VR headsets to give you a sense of immersion. However, our visual anatomy is such that there's a part where the images from the two eyes do not overlap, ergo, blind spot. The thing is, we don't notice it because the brain is always filling the gap with what it thinks should be in the blind spot based on what we can see around the blind spot.

I don't know about you, but this makes me question my reality, and rightly so; how we interpret a given situation or stimulus is almost never true to the actual reality of it. It's scary to think about what the brain chooses to show us and what it chooses to ignore, but if there's any good news here, it's that we can train our brains to focus on certain things and ignore others.

Now we know that we'll always encounter negative stimuli, and we'll always face rejection. It's okay to accept this because once we accept it, we can seek out positive stimuli to counteract the effects of the negative ones. Furthermore, we can take steps to shape our attention so our brains begin to focus on positive experiences. I'd like to throw in one more idea at this juncture. 

Fourth, if the above three ideas arm us to deal with the negative effects of rejection, then we can take it one step further; we should get comfortable with rejection. More so, we should actively seek it out. After all, what's the worst that could happen?

If your work isn't getting any rejection, then you're either so amazing and loved by everyone that comes across your work, or you're not putting yourself out there enough. It's probably not the former. Through this lens, it might be a good idea to set rejection quotas, because each rejection bears the mark of a try-fail cycle. It shows that you've made an effort to show your work. It shows that you've dared to do something that most people never do. It also shows, and perhaps this is most important, that you've embraced the idea that it's okay to fail. And isn't failure just a pit stop on the road to success?

Thank you for making it this far. To sum up, there'll always be negative reactions to your art, craft, or vocation. It shouldn't cripple you and shouldn’t stop you from doing what you want to do. Remember that in addition to the bad press, there'll be good press too. There may be naysayers, but there'll also be cheerleaders. There’ll be people so moved by your art that they'll reach out to let you know. Hang on to these and treat them like gold. There'll be people you touch as well, that you'll never know of, and that’s okay too. I’ll go so far as to say that perhaps we shouldn’t even make art for the express purpose of eliciting feedback, and we certainly shouldn't make art for praise or adoration. Art, whether it's the finished product, an abandoned piece, or a work in progress, should be its own reward.

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