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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.Β  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?

Comments (168)
  • Barbara Mckinney

    Hey David! You are indeed right, rejection breeds creativity. Yes, rejection is a negative thing but don’t let it overpower you. Hence, make it as a fuel, motivating factor towards reaching your dreams in life. There are so many successful people who suffered from so many rejections, but they don’t conform to it.

  • davidburkus

    Barbara, I like your use of the word fuel. I might have to steal that. Thanks!

  • davidburkus

    Thanks for the awesome example!

  • CamilleJB

    Great article its one of those things that you kind of already knew to be true just from a gut instinct but never had the facts to back it up. I know that I personally have a discussion along these lines on a regular basis and seem to be clutching at various vaguely connected studies to make my point. Now I will go directly to yours! So for that I thank you. Another thing that I would like to add is do you think that anger is quite possibly one of the catalysts involved in the high performance category? I wonder if you could measure how quick the temper of the participants was as a deciding factor because as an ex athlete myself I know that I generally had the best performances when I was ticked off about something. That may well be just because it is sports and adrenaline and anger are connected but I am tempted to believe that it could be transferable into other areas. I think you have just given me inspiration for my next blog post http://camillejbdesign.blogspo

  • lily

    You are indeed right

  • davidburkus

    Thanks Lily!

  • davidburkus

    I think anger probably functions similar to excitement in relation to performance. Meaning there’s likely a bell curve at which a certain amount might be able to be channeled toward improving performance, but too much can detract focus from the real goal. Thanks Camille!

  • Kennett Kwok

    I enjoyed reading the article. Thank you David.

  • Mr. Ketter

    Rejection –in my opinion– fuels creativity in creative people. For non-creatives it seems to create angst. Hence the Hitler reference.

  • Barbara Mckinney

    Sure David πŸ™‚

  • susanna oreskovic

    Great article, and explains my life a bit. I remember when in university I went through the job recruiting process and didn’t get a single interview from any of the 10 big name companies I wanted. Totally rejected. So I decided to do it on my own, contact my very limited professional network at the time, and landed in one of those companies but in a better job than if I had done the mainstream thing. Sometimes you just have to make your own rules. I say that but in reality I just looked at myself, what I knew, who I knew and took a step, any step, forward without really knowing how it would turn out. I turned into a 15 year career. Now recently again, I’m rejected without a job. I’m happy, optimistic and see a world of opportunities ahead of me. This time I’m a bit wiser. I will again make my own rules and create what I want to do. It’s a grand adventure!

  • Anticio Duke

    Awesome read. Reminds me of the opportunity complex..whenever you hear a NO…it actually means NEXT. Thanks David!

  • Chakib Tsouli

    A little typo, it’s Stefani Germanotta*
    not Germanotti

  • Chris Slabber

    It all makes way more sense now – Thanks!

  • Niki

    It seems that this question could have been solved by looking at high school social groups. In my experience the most anti-social outcasts in high school were the most creative and interesting people while everyone else was trying hard to be the same.

  • Carly

    The option of early retirement or compulsory redundancy from lecturing at a mundane University lead to a creative and more exciting outlook on life. Re inventing as an Advertising, Still Life, Editorial photographer, a previous vocation, with the freedom to express and progress forward. Just need to get the marketing right to attract clients, : )

  • Jeremy Q. Butler

    great read.

  • Stephen

    If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. This was my grandmother’s advice. Which leads to another tired truism: “Everything old is new again.”

  • Stephen

    Did you happen to ask Def Jam execs how they feel now about dropping Stefani/Lady Gaga? Now that would have been interesting.

  • Thulfiqar

    Thank You david. This concept is applicable to the different general life issues.

  • Josh Ward

    Outside the box is the only way to make things happen in this world and a cheeky smile/attitude helps rather a lot too πŸ˜‰


  • Ka Ying Neng Moua

    Rejection is a blow in the face after putting all you’ve got and I used to take it harshly. Whether it’s work, school, relationships, et cetera – rejection is a way of how I can improve as an individual and your last quotation by George Bernard Shaw speaks the truth for our society. I am a Cultural Anthropology major undergrad and I tend to think slightly different from my peers and my social groups. Acknowledging this difference is what makes me do what I find beneficial to the global community at a greater large. Thanks for a thought-provoking article.

  • Nick Shinn

    This is capitalist Darwinism BS: if you are a failure, it’s not the system that’s at fault for discriminating against creativity and difference, you just haven’t worked hard enough to establish your brand.
    Artists and musicians (pace Lady Gaga) are amongst the poorest in our society.

  • Christina

    I got let go from my job yesterday and woke feeling not so good about the future. Then I got this email and woke something up inside me.
    Thanks for this:)

  • Arjan

    Maybe it’s just embedded within the definition of creativity itself: have we ever called a thing (or idea) “creative” when it was accepted immediately?

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