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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)
  • davidburkus

    Great example Laura, thanks for sharing.

  • davidburkus

    Thanks Scarlet. I’d wager it will be awhile before all the facts are revealed from all involved. I am loving learning even more about the story since writing this piece.

  • davidburkus

    Sadly, I’ve had that same experience – only sometimes with the result you describe. Thanks Mark!

  • davidburkus

    Glad to have helped in an ever-so-small way. Now get out there and conquer.

  • davidburkus

    Thanks so much Daniela.

  • davidburkus

    I’m not sure there’s research on that. Sounds like an interesting study to run. Thanks for the idea.

  • davidburkus

    Great point. Thanks.

  • davidburkus

    Dennis. Thanks so much. I’m so glad you enjoyed the article.

  • davidburkus

    Sorry to disappoint.

  • davidburkus

    Thanks Bea. Best of luck. The interesting thing about mainstream is that it moves. Keep pushing and you will hit breakthrough soon enough.

  • davidburkus

    Wow. What a great example. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • davidburkus

    Often the more “creative” an idea the harder time it has reaching acceptance.

  • davidburkus

    Keep thinking differently. We need you.

  • davidburkus

    Great way to put it. Thanks.

  • davidburkus

    Not a problem. Glad you enjoyed the piece.

  • davidburkus

    Glad you enjoyed it!

  • davidburkus

    Niki, Years later I am now proud to have been unpopular in high school. Thanks!

  • davidburkus

    Thanks so much!

  • davidburkus

    Stephan, I like your grandmother. Thanks for sharing.

  • rejected

    it sounds pretty straight forward and logical to me, but what about sustained rejection? You can get up, and get up, and get up, and get up, and then something has to give!

  • Al

    My experience is that rejection is depressing.

  • Rich Downes

    I totally agree with this article. I’ve had so much hurt and heartbreak/heartache in recent times. I actually have created, albeit editing again now for my forum and “public release” 1,000 pieces. If you know my past you’d understand but this just oozes what I say about my works. RD. <3

  • Guest

    Godwin’s Law?

  • Tony Pracy

    When we find ourselves at the rejection roundabout, we will need to make a single choice – That choice will only be as positive or negative as the choices that stand by It’s side.

  • suzie MACLEAN

    Thank you very much for posting this, I commented on a TV Commercial, which I though was not all it could be and I made a point of what would work. But the others in the group thought other wise. And yes I felt rejected but I still stand by what I say. As I don’t pamper to peoples egos, and tell them what they want to here, not what they should hear.

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