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Big Ideas

How Rejection Breeds Creativity

With a few small changes in your mindset, you can turn rejection into a dramatic boost for your motivation and focus.

In 2006, Stefani Germanotta had hit a turning point in her career. She had quit a rigorous musical theatre program at an elite college to focus on her musical passion and, after a year of hard work and little income, had signed a deal with Def Jam records.  But this promise wouldn’t last. Just three months after signing, Def Jam changed its mind about Stefani’s unusual style and released her from her contract.

Rejected, Stefani went back the drawing board, working in clubs and experimenting with new performers and new influences. These experiments produced a new sound that was drawing positive attention from critics and fans. Within a year, there was another offer; this one from Interscope Records. Nearly two years after her initial rejection, Stefani was finally able to introduce her sound and her self to the world – as Lady Gaga.

Rejection happens and, when it does, how we respond to it matters. Lady Gaga responded by experimenting with new influences and making her sound more unique. Just as Gaga experienced, recent research suggests that when most of us experience rejection, it can actually enhance our creativity, depending on how we respond to it.

In a series of experiments, researchers led by Sharon Kim of Johns Hopkins University sought to examine the impact of rejection on individuals’ creative output. In the first experiment, participants were given a series of personality questions and told they would be considered for participation in several group exercises in the future.

Rejection happens and, when it does, how we respond to it matters.

When the participants returned to the laboratory a week later, some of them were asked to complete a few tasks before joining their group (inclusion), others were told that the none of the groups had chosen them and they would need to complete their tasks independently (rejection).

The tasks in the experiment were a series of rapid associative tests (RAT), a common measurement of divergent thinking. A RAT question works by presenting three seemingly unrelated words (e.g. fish, mine, and rush) and asking participants to think of a single word that can be added to all three to create a meaningful term (e.g. gold; goldfish, gold mine, gold rush). The RAT question is a useful measurement because it requires both elements of creative thinking: novelty and usefulness.

When they calculated the results, the researchers found that “rejected” participants significantly outperformed those that were included in a group. But that wasn’t all the researchers found. Embedded in the personality questions was a measurement of how individualistic or collective participants viewed themselves (called independent or dependent self-concept). Those who had test results that labeled them as independent showed even greater gains in creativity after feeling rejection. Consider the difference between those who respond to rejection by sulking versus those who respond by rollingup their sleeves and thinking “I’ll show them.”

Those who had test results that labeled them as independent showed even greater gains in creativity after feeling rejection.

The researchers wanted to know if this independent self-concept could be manipulated. Could people be put into a mindset that dealt with rejection in a way that enhanced their creative output? To answer this, they reran their experiment with a slight tweak. Instead of embedding the self-concept measurement in their personality questions and examining correlations afterward, participants’ self concept was altered or “primed” through a simple activity designed to focus participants either on themselves or on how they fit into a larger group. Remarkably, even a task as small as circling the singular “I” or plural “we” pronouns in a story was enough to alter their self-concept and affect their response to rejection.

As they expected, participants primed with an independent self-concept solved significantly more RAT problems following rejection than those primed to think collectively. The results were conclusive: rejection breeds creativity, especially for those who consider themselves highly independent. In final a follow-up study, the researchers found the same trend using a different measurement of creativity.

Taken together, these experiments hold interesting implications for responding to rejection. While it is never a comfortable experience, the feelings of rejection can actually help us access our more creative selves. Free from the expectations of group norms, we can push the limits of novelty. Moreover, we can enhance that ability by changing the way we respond to rejection. Instead of dwelling too much on the pain of being turned down or turned aside, consider the freedom you now have to explore new possibilities and less mainstream options.

Feelings of rejection can actually help us access our more creative selves.

Being rejected is often a statement that you (or your ideas) are too far from the current mainstream to be considered safe or comfortable. This could actually be a good thing. You’re ahead of your time. While the group or client may not believe they need you right away, the world probably does. If you’re too far from the mainstream, you could be the one pushing progress forward.

Consider how Lady Gaga’s work was too unique for Def Jam, but was an international hit just two years later with Interscope. Decades before Gaga, George Bernard Shaw, the Nobel Prize winning writer, weighed in on the same phenomenon, saying “The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him. The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

What’s Your Experience?

How do you respond to being rejected?

More Posts by David Burkus

Comments (168)
  • karis

    This goes hand-in-hand with the fact that several of the greats in art, literature and music were closeted, tormented and persecuted LGBT people in time periods that didn’t accept them.

  • blackliteon

    Well, this is absolutely true. Rejection forward me to do understand what projects I’ve always wanna do, and now they are real projects.

  • Dan Garner

    My initial response is normally a little bit of typical self pitty, but it quickly turns to determination and defiance.

    Dan @ ZenPresence

  • Dp Jaysiah Doherty

    I see myself getting rejected as a good thing.When i informally pitch an idea to someone and they have problems with it ive always seen it as a good thing.

  • Kennett Kwok

    This really reminds me of the TED Talk about introversion being good for creativity. Perhaps isolation brings out the best in creativity. It just so happens that rejection causes us to be isolated.

  • Jenny Stanfield

    I love this article. Rejection feeds creation – the ultimate positive outlook.

  • Ira Shepel

    I agree with the idea in general, as one of my most successful design projects appeared after several rejections. I couldn’t find creative ways to show my idea clearly, however after few tries of creative ways i found my style and i really appreciate that lots of people liked and shared my creative work. you can find it here

  • Capture Your Flag

    Fascinating article. Thank you for sharing. In our interviews with rising leaders we are always looking at both rejection as it relates to performance as well as creative process as it relates to furthering aspirational career ambition. In this video with Manifold Partners co-founder and creative director Jason Anello, he shares how rejection has influenced his own creative output. Here is the link:

  • Mike

    Adolph Hitler was rejected by the Vienna Art School.
    If only they had accepted him…

  • davidburkus

    Glad to hear it Jenny. It’s all in how you respond to the rejection. Hopefully, this piece helped they way readers will respond. Thanks!

  • davidburkus

    Ira those are awesome. I especially like the one of all the lens. You’re not alone either. The list of writers whose work only improved after being rejected by publishers is seemingly endless.

  • davidburkus

    Great insight Dan. I think we all take a brief pause to lick our wounds. Hopefully, then we all turn that pity into perseverance. Thanks!

  • davidburkus

    Great example of rejection being the force that leads us to refocus on what matters. The first step in doing more great work. Thanks so much.

  • davidburkus

    Admittedly, there are exceptions.

  • davidburkus

    Great video. Thanks for sharing.

  • davidburkus

    My friend Peter Sims calls those “Little Bets.” He estimates we need 100 little bets to produce 6 solid ideas. Lots of room for informal pitches in there. Thanks for sharing.

  • davidburkus

    Or members of any other group that wasn’t the norm. Sadly, history seems to repeat itself here too often.

  • RaC

    All right, but I don´t agree with Shaw. The reasonable man never give up reason, never adapts himself to the conditions that surround him if it means sacrificing what you know is true. And nothing is more certain than yourself. The man of reason never submitted his self. Therefore, all progress depends on the man of reason.

  • ciaran

    You also get rejected because your work is not up to standard and your skillset isnt strong enough for the occasion. That has happened to me several times in the past and slowed me down a little, but if anything, being told I wasnt good enough, either directly or implicitly by not getting a job, developed persistance and determination, along with giving me a kick up the arse to improve my skills!

  • davidburkus

    Especially if the idea has been generated and its a matter of elaborating and getting the work done. Thanks Kennett.

  • davidburkus

    Great example. Too often I’ve thought a project was finish but it wasn’t at their standard. When the rejection motivated me to look back at the piece and really work on it, I ended up with a great product. Heck, just ask Jocelyn.

  • davidburkus

    I don’t think Shaw’s comment was aimed at the “Man of Reason” I think he uses “reasonable” the way a society often does when trying to reign in an outlier. As in, “go to school, study hard, get a secure job, buy a house, be reasonable.” Thanks for the comment.

  • xsm

    Interesting experiment on mental abilities depending on accepting or rejection by social group. Going a bit deeper – where is the edge of rejection level at which brain begins to perceive a person as rejected. F.i. does personalization of a task assignment to somebody particular from a team action as a “rejection” contributing to rising creativity, or this is not such a severe factor for brain to perceive itself as rejected from the group?

  • davidburkus

    Interesting questions. I’m sure there are follow-up studies planned. I think being told you were rejected from a group you never saw is pretty low on the rejections scale. It’d be interesting to see at what amount of rejection does performance decline…or at how long a period of rejection. Thanks for some solid things to ponder.

  • Sanjukta

    I already knew this from my experience of working with a team mate who is very innovative but hardly gets his projects approved by our HOD at one go .He finally makes his proposals so good that its a mafia offer-one you can’t refuse.He has designed the best product from our Centre of Excellence as yet.The statistics helped .Thanks .

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