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Risk-Taking

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)
  • Guest

    Hi, does anyone know where I could find

  • James Springhetti

    Hi, does anyone know where I could find more examples of RAT questions? I want to use it as an icebreaker for a company meeting coming up. Thanks!

  • DJ

    I haven’t been professionally rejected yet but people have told me I’d never succeed or that I wasn’t good enough because of the type of art I do. Here I am, 3 years later, better at my art and stories and on the track to publishing and moving towards my goals. Slowly, but it’s moving. Also, I noticed that outside pressures or fear of being stuck also helps. For instance, I was freaking out a few months ago about having to be a waitress forever and I went home and pushed out a lot of creative work but I also think there’s a breaking point to that stress. Like it can hurt you in some ways and hinder you. I’d like to see more about balance and how to turn negatives into positives. Great article!

  • Jd Overton

    This is exactly what people who have been rejected would say to themselves.

  • Jd Overton

    How about, “Who took my cheese?”, or “Why is everyone leaving the ship?”

  • Marcel Koelen

    In general rejection means that you don’t fit in certain standards.
    And you don’t want to fit in because you don’t want to compromise.
    If you don’t compromise you have more room to be creative !

  • Darcy H.

    Good point! This article should at least give a nod to the emotional and financial costs of staying true to one’s art when no one else finds value in it. Although narcissists—like Lady Gaga and other fame-seekers—do okay, for most of us, the costs can be too high.

  • Aaron Poisson

    I just got rejected for a Graphic Design role with Jones Lang LaSalle, I was told my work was too creative and that the other candidate had real estate design work in his/her book, which I did not. I don’t know how to get hired in this economy after 1.5 years of job seeking.

  • Carol

    Rejection affirms my beliefs, clarifies who I am relative to the many, and strengthens my resolve. And it depresses the hell out of me until I get my wits collected and I pick myself back up. Always get back up. Always.

  • Michael Adrian Mendoza

    The main point here is on how we will respond to rejection to improve ourselves.

  • Dietzign

    Then does encouragement stifle creativity?

  • Kia

    This is so refreshing. I got fired two months ago from my agency and the reason being that I didn’t have that star quality to be a phenomenal copywriter. It sucked but that urge to succeed just got stronger!

  • Kat

    It was just a joke!

  • MDBudd

    I wonder how much of this study is an increase in competitiveness and a need to “prove oneself” by standing out versus creativity.

  • LeisaG

    Is it OK if I weep and mope first and THEN roll up my sleeves and get more creative? That’s what usually happens.

  • Kennett Kwok

    Glad you got something out of it!

  • Louise

    I am in your corner, Aaron. You keep on applying for GD jobs and do not throw in any towel, not that you will! The economy has hit GD’ers hard, but if your work is creative and solid, that is going to catch the eye of someone and s/he will appreciate what you can bring to the table. It has to be also a good fit for both sides. You probably know all of this but I just wanted to say keep on! Get someone to look at your portfolio, someone you trust will be honest with you yet supportive.

  • Dawn Meredith

    My writer friends and I were discussing this very thing online today. resubmitting after a rejection forces you to rework a piece until its better, until you’re better at it. And you don’t get that benefit if you curl up and feel sorry for yourself, or rage at the injustice of the world. Success comes from three things – talent, opportunity and perseverance. If you’re interested, I blogged about it here: http://www.dawnmeredithauthor.blogspo... cheers, Dawn

  • PandaMonk

    Something happens, and you change direction … maybe for better , maybe for worse. Saying rejection “can” breed creativity, is like saying the wind will always carry the ship home. P.S. It wont. 🙂

  • Johnnie Walker

    That’s me as of now and my whole life. Stay tuned!!!!
    Thanks K

  • Kimunya Mugo

    For me, rejection isn’t just a strong feeling. It is set of intricately sets of experiences put together by a third party and driven by their inadequacy or mediocrity. How did I respond to rejection? I chose to become an active father, to drive excellence in all that I do, and finally to get the courage to write a book that helps to heal the wounds I received from the absence of my father.

  • Najam Moothatt

    It is really encouraging to climb the creative ladder…

  • Eric Johnson MBA

    Now in my life, I view rejection as an opportunity. This article also brings this quote to mind: “From getting cut from the high school basketball team, to getting fired from jobs, getting credit cards rejected and cut up. Rejection has only been a distraction, not a roadblock. “Every no gets me closer to a yes,” was the saying I used.” Mark Cuban

  • @steve_gerecke

    The worst type of rejection is “self”

  • Nikash

    Hi Louise,

    In contrast, I find teaching at university has made me more creative and forces me to stay one step ahead of the students to remain helpful.

    In relation to this article, not that I want to be overly negative, but a handful of high-exposure successes is not a good indication of creativity’s connection to rejection. If you think about the sheer number of people who are rejected daily and fail to recover or translate that negativity into productivity, I think a rational person would say in the majority of everyday cases rejection stifles creativity, in everyone but the persistent.

    And the research findings seem limited; rejection resulting in short-term motivation (like performing better in an experiment that lasts hours) is worlds apart from the effect of repeated and accumulated rejection throughout a career (or job-hunting), which could eat into even the strongest resolve.

    Like a couple of others, I think an implication that creativity=success exists in this article that maybe should be distinguished. And Lady Gaga, successful for sure, but Creative? that almost seems an assumption that success=creativity =(

    I’ll stop being a downer. I realise there are only so many clarifications that can be made in an article before it becomes cumbersome. Nicely thought-provoking though.

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