How to Redesign Rejection into Success

NO is a tough teacher


Has this happened to you?

Someone says no to you.

A foundation turns your proposal down.

You get a bad review, negative comments on your work.

You get no response to your work.

Nobody is coming to your show.

You can’t sell your work.


Getting a NO or a rejection letter is lousy.

Rejection can have serious implications for an person’s psychological state and for society in general.

Researchers say, the rejected should seek out healthy, positive connections with friends and family.

That recommendation squares with the neural evidence that shows positive social interactions release opioids for a natural mood boost, says Naomi Eisenberger, PhD, at the University of California.


At our recent awards ceremony, I spoke to an artist who invited me to his upcoming performance.

“Please send us information about this so we can put it on our promotional calendar, “ I said.

“Oh, but I didn’t get a grant this year,” he said.  “I came because I want to support my artist community and to feel what it is like to be among the grantwinners.”

He smiled and disappeared into the crowd.  

I expect to see him at next year’s awards ceremony as one of the grantwinners.  What he did was a positive step in getting beyond the NO and doing some strategic networking and marketing for his career.

To be an artist and put your work out into the world, you have to accept a reality that is polarized by a spectrum of human interaction with acceptance on one end and rejection on the other end.

We are hardwired to crave acceptance, belonging, being part of something. Perhaps that has something to do with our instinct for survival. Isolation and death are persuasive incentives.

When we are faced with rejection, we let NO destroy us because we have attached our sense of self worth, esteem, accomplishment to a decision someone else will make.   We fall hard, crushed by the weight of everything we have attached to this decision.  We have given up our power.

Unless you have a very tough skin, you will feel terrible when you get a NO.  Add that 2:00 am voice of self doubt and your own inner critic – you know that you are your own worst critic – and you will probably not sleep and wake up ready to chuck your dreams out the window.

Dealing with rejection is not easy.  It can be made worse by the words and behaviors of others and how you deal with it.  But, being mindful of how you control your thinking and experience of it can restore your inner strength and sense of well being.  

There are many reasons behind a NO that have nothing to do to with you or your self worth.  Here are 3 common examples:

Not yet – Sometimes foundations prefer observing you before they fund you.  This is a usually an internal decision that may or may not appear in their guidelines.  

Not the right fit – It is not what they are looking for.

Not this time – A funder may have given a grant award to a project similar to yours last year.  Their priorities may have changed so they will, for example, choose to fund artists like you but in a different part of the country.

Think of it this way: “you” personally, are not being rejected, it is the other person that is declining what you have to offer.  Don’t personalize rejection.

Take each NO as a chance to learn a little more about the decision maker.  A NO is a perfect opportunity to pick up the phone and ask for panel comments.  I do this as a matter of course for every grant I get as well as for every grant I don’t get.

Here’s what works for me:
Crumble up into a ball

Take whatever time you need to absorb NO.  Let your body and your mind take it all in.  I like to think of it like the beginning of making a pearl.

Just how does a pearl get started?

An irritant enters the mollusk either when it is open or sometimes it actually burrows through the shell from the outside. As the irritant enters the mollusk, in order for it to be the cause of a new pearl, it must pick up some of the mollusk’s mantle tissue on the way into the inside of the mollusk. It’s the mantle tissue that forms a pearl sac.

So…do you think you could start taking irritants in your life and turn them into beautiful pearls? What a challenge! And the humble, lowly mollusk’s lead the way in this miraculous process.


Take lots of deep breaths

Energize your inner mollusk


Re define No

I spoke to a group of MFA students recently and asked if any of them had success in writing grants.  A few raised their hands.  Then, I asked, “What did you write the grant for?”

“I needed the money.”

“I wanted to get famous.”

The usual answers.

One student raised his hand and said, “I wanted to focus my writing.”

He wrote grant proposals because they forced him to distill his thinking and be clear about everything that goes into making art like putting together a reasonable budget, marketing, a workplan, etc.  

I admire his understanding of the grant process as a long term game and his willingness to use this process as practice.  If he continues to do this, 2 things will happen: he will become a better grant writer who will win grant awards and he will gain more focus and clarity in developing his business skills as a working artist.

He wins whether he gets the grant or not.

No can be many things including:

Not you personally

Not yet

Not quite

Not for you

The most important thing to do is to lighten the weight of NO by detaching your sense of self worth, your self esteem and your belief in yourself.  Redefine what that NO is.  Maybe it is just a writing exercise for an MFA student.  

I take rejection as someone blowing a bugle in my ear to wake me up and get going, rather than retreat.

 Sylvester Stallone

Move on

When someone asks you how you are, simply say, “I’m fine.”

If pressed further, I suggest you take some advice from Austin Kleon and say,

No, everything’s fine. Why do you ask?

(When one is distressed, one either has to take a walk, or do like Paul Klee and “take a line for a walk.”)

Get out. Get some fresh air.

Repeat as needed

You will be just fine.

One thought on “How to Redesign Rejection into Success

  1. Hi Hoongyee Lee. No? Go for No is one of the principles I applie when I make some request from those I know would say No. ( ). Thank you for not to have say No when I subscribe with you. Am getting inspired in my activities. Talk soon ma.