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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?

Comments (168)
  • Eleutherius Michaelides

    hello,

    i was also rejected from childhood from my dad, in the meantime, i am in Italy, approved by European Commission and i have generated 4 start up companies and i have adoptd Sylvia Rivera law project as my cause!

  • Davor

    You lost me at Lady Gaga.

  • Lucas Mattiello

    Great article David, I agree and reflecting back on past rejection, it forced me to see why I was rejected and refine the product to succeed. A quote from Denzel Washington has grounded my thoughts of rejection:

    “If you don’t fail, you’re not even trying.”

    Rejection is necessary for success as it presents an opportunity to test what you’re willing to do in order to succeed.

    http://www.levelupliving.com

  • Bea

    Ive been through exactly this process, without becoming Lady Gaga of course… Who knows what this will take me. XD
    But, It is completely right, Im not in the mainstream but i have good ideas, so I joined with the people who believe in them and join forces to create them. Apart from this, I had too much time to think for myself what I really want to do, where my core essences are and HOW i will use them. Next step: ACTION.

    THANK YOU FOR THIS POST.

  • Dennis Velco

    Nice article. As a fine art finger painting artist, rejection and professional critique definitely makes me ponder harder to push myself to overcome that.

    Thanks for this article and your reporting. What you do is appreciated.

    I posted it to my LGBT Group on LinkedIn to spur members to read your article and to make comment. I also scooped it at Scoop.It on my LGBT Times news mashup.

    Link to group >> http://www.linkedin.com/groups

    All LGBT+ and community allies…. please come join me and 16,000+ of your soon to be great connections on LinkedIn. The member base represents 80% of the world’s countries.

    It’s core value is – Visibility can lead to awareness which can lead to equality. Come stand with us and increase our visibility on the globe’s largest professional networking site. Be a professional who just happens to be LGBT – or a welcomed community ally.

  • sim3tria

    If I didn’t feel frustrated after a rejection it’s because I didn’t put my heart in that project, so I guess my response would be: Work Harder next time!!!

  • Ruthenium66

    Is there a difference based on whether we think that our WORK has been rejected rather than thinking that WE have been rejected?

  • Daniela Santibáñez

    Beautiful article. It can easily relate to personal issues and the way you can grow in mind and soul.

  • Bea

    i just saw it, thank you! i ended up crying of self-reflection.

  • alma

    No, there are no exceptions. Rejection breeds something in all of us. An urge, a reaction, a plan, a desire, or a deep need to succeed. What that will transform into remains to be seen. The principle is true. The application of the principle and where we take that urge to show others we are as good or better depends a lot on our values, upbringing, ethics, morals and others. Hitler does not invalidate the principle, it just makes us watch out for the application of that principle. I can push the gas pedal in the car, where I drive the car to, depends on who I am as a person. I can crash it or I can get there.

  • elizbaethboyeong

    I’m a recent grad of graphic design and having been thrown out in the cold cruel world is hard. Finding a job is even harder. I actually just got the rejection email from the company I was so hoping to work for this morning. “examining other participants…” talk about feeling like a loser. This article couldn’t have been dropped in my inbox on a better day because it is so true. Back to the drawing board I go. Thanks for taking away that raincloud over my head.

    behance.net/elizabethboyeong

  • elizbaethboyeong

    I’m a recent graphic design grad and I gotta admit, getting thrown into the cold cruel world is hard. Finding a job is even harder. I actually got hit with a rejection email this morning from the company I was so hoping to work for. “We’ve decided to pursue other candidates..” talk about that sinking feeling you get when you’re back at square 1 (Is there a square before that?? I might even be there…). This article couldn’t have gotten dropped in my inbox on a better day. I’m already back at the drawing board.

  • Mark

    Great article and it not only relates to rejection, I think it’s also true with any sort of set-back. I’ve had a time or two in the past when I’ve been working on something (and you forget to save). The computer or program might lock up or crash for some reason and you start again and create something better than what you were working on.

  • Scarlet

    From what I understand L.A. Reid did not like her but AKON was in his office and over heard Laga Gaga performing and when Reid dropped her Akon signed her up … It would be good to tell the whole story for it benefits everyone that one … 🙂

  • Sean Blanda

    Fixed! Good catch!

  • Laura Michot

    I was recently rejected by a friend for like the hundredth time, but this time was very different. Instead of lowering myself to be his friend again, I started writing. I’m writing a really great story and haven’t been bothered by that jerk since. Rejection can hurt, but if you focus those feelings into something good it can help a lot. I’ve never been as happy as I am now.

  • Capitaine Bubbles

    Really enjoyed this article (thanks for writing it) and fully agree that there’s a fine line with which direction someone can take to either give up or become stronger. Usually the narrow road is never easy and few understand why some of us choose to take it.

  • julien

    “reculer pour mieux sauter” stepping back to take a better jump forward. rejection is definitively a kick, forcing us to step back, putting us in a good position to see the big picture. but how many kicks are we able to endure? Many kicks or a big enough one may put us far enough to completely miss the jump.

  • Jack Long

    Personally it hasn’t been as much rejection as a lack of inclusion. This may seem like the same thing, but the fact that I am working to get acceptance in the fine art world causes me to work harder, when something doesn’t get the desired response. Now that I have put together a strong book (IMO), I get to deal with outright rejection as well. Rejection from galleries, contests etc. I will not stop working on MY vision and moving in the direction that I want to go. behance.net/jacklongphoto

  • davidburkus

    Great point Alma.

  • davidburkus

    Christina, sorry to here that. Glad this helped even if in a small way.

  • davidburkus

    Actually, I did find a quote form one of the execs that said he was glad he did it, because Gaga wouldn’t be Gaga without it. Obviously, I bet he’d have preferred to have signed her back.

  • davidburkus

    Keep it up Jack. Use every instance as fuel for great things. Thanks for sharing here.

  • davidburkus

    Julien, a great point. I sincerely wish I had an evidence-based measurement of how much rejection was too much. In the meantime I’ll keep looking.

  • davidburkus

    For sure. If it were easy than it wouldn’t be worthwhile.

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