So You Failed. Then What?


I just got rejected by “my people,” and it stung.

Rejected by Which People, Now?

You might remember me talking about the Cracked Pots Re-use Art Show last summer at McMennamin’s Edgefield, a destination 20 minutes east of Portland that Mark refers to as “Disneyland for grownups.” I’d applied and been accepted, along with 99 others, to sell at this giant craft faire extravaganza where everything on offer must be made of at least 80% salvaged materials. It was two-and-a-half days outside on the shady, expansive grounds (never mind the 95 degree heat and smoky wildfire skies), displaying my whimsical up-cycled wares to thousands of visitors. The biggest show I’d ever done. I loved being surrounded by fellow vendors who also, when they see a discarded garden hose nozzle, think “bird beak!” It was kinda awesome.

Well, this year I applied again, but didn’t get in. They chose 100 other reuse artists.

It Was Not My First Face-Plant

I’ve been rejected many times before by galleries and art shows, don’t get me wrong. Sometimes I pay an application fee for the privilege of being denied.

And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve put a new product or painting or blog post or workshop or service offering or proposal out into the world, just to hear… crickets. Nothing. Nada.

Rejection and failure and I are pretty tight. We see each other a lot. Very, very familiar are we.

Why am I telling you this? Is it some kind of pity party?

I’m not asking for your sympathy, honest. That’s not why I’m writing about my upsets. I’ve recovered and moved on, even from this most recent one.

That’s why I’m writing about it. There are nuggets to mine from this exact spot, post-rejection.

You probably already know that failure is a great teacher, and that nobody you admire got to where they are without loads of trial-and-error, and that all creativity involves risk.

In case you didn’t know those things (or need a reminder), let me state them again:
1) Failure is a great teacher.
2) Nobody you admire got to where they are without loads of trial-and-error.
3) All creativity involves risk.

Part of the story is usually missing, and it’s important.

Stories of failure are out there, right? We normally hear about the long list of misfires and attempts-gone-wrong after someone has made it big. They’re in the spotlight ‘cause they did something very cool, and interviewers want to know how the cool thing came to be. That’s when we hear about the many years they floundered in obscurity, sending their manuscripts off into the void, not getting chosen for the team, going thousands and thousands of dollars into debt.

And then… success!

What we don’t hear enough about is the 24 hours or two weeks or three years right after the failures. What happens during that time? How, precisely, does a person recover and move on?

In other words, what does resilience look like?

I can’t speak to how your heroes picked themselves up and moved forward. But with the scent of fresh rejection still in the air around here, I can describe my own post-failure scene in detail. More or less in this order, here’s what happens:

  1. My heart feels heavy and panicky, and pounds loud and fast in my chest.

  2. I release a few choice expletives into the air. (They seem to help.)

  3. I tell someone about it — usually Mark, and/or my kids, and/or the friend at yoga class who asks how I’m doing. Saying it out loud makes it feel like just one of those things human beings have to endure. (There’s a reason “Shit happens” is a popular saying. And also, “Misery loves company.”)

  4. Within an hour or so, once the news has sunk in, I might shed a few tears, depending on how much I cared about the thing I got rejected from, how high my hopes were, how well I knew the rejector, how well the rest of my life is going at that moment, etc. (This recent one? Yes, there were some tears.)

  5. I second-guess my abilities and decisions. (“Crap, I need to up my game. Maybe I got lazy. I should have submitted this or that instead. Maybe my work isn’t actually very good or interesting. All those other people’s stuff looks more professional,” and so on.)

  6. I get cynical and sour-grapes-ish. (“What do those judges know, anyway?”)

  7. I pivot into silver-lining mode. (In this case, appreciating all the hours I will not need to spend preparing for this show, being at the show, and recovering/reorganizing after the show, which—though I enjoy it all—when calculated with my sales receipts, puts my earnings far below minimum wage.)

  8. I give myself pep talks. I remind myself: that failure is normal and not something to be ashamed of, even when it feels shameful; that I have many other options; that I’ve failed and recovered many times before, and I can do it again; that I’m still a good person with creative skills to offer; that it could always be so, so much worse. I’m very fortunate to have this “problem.” Everything will be ok. I’ll be fine.

  9. I sulk a little more if I need to. Maybe I doodle about it, putting my feelings down on paper.

  10. Something positive happens that helps me get out of my funk and renews my energy. (This time, two crow paintings I casually and spontaneously posted online resulted in sales of both within days, equaling the amount of money I’d grossed at last summer’s sale — yep, that one I just got rejected from.)

Even if number 10 doesn’t happen, by the time I get through items 1 through 9, I’ve moved on. I’m picking up my paintbrush again, or planning my next art workshops, or writing a new blog post about my experience. Those actions themselves can be the positive next steps, the Step Number 10.

What About Bigger Failures and Rejections?

Sure, not being chosen for an art show is no big deal in the larger scheme of things. There’s no bodily injury, or broken relationship, or financial disaster. It’s simply information from the powers that be, that what I made was not what they wanted this time, please try again later.

But that sequence of 10 recovery steps I outlined? When I compare it to how things went down when I realized my marriage needed to end, the parallels are uncanny. My marriage-that-ended-in-divorce is simultaneously my biggest public failure, the greatest gift of my life (looking at you, kids!), my wisest teacher, and my most effective resilience-building experience thus far.

The only differences between small failures and huge failures are the duration of the process (instead of the three days it took to fully digest the art show rejection, the reckoning stages of my divorce took three years or more — with some parts still flaring up for attention now and then), and the actions I needed to take (art show loss: nothing to do; end of marriage: a grueling mountain of paperwork to slog through, emotional depths to plumb, wrenching conversations to have).

So, same thing, and not the same thing. However, practicing resilience, it turns out, can apply to all kinds of situations.

Yeah, But It’s Easy For You

I almost fell over when I read this line a friend wrote to me recently, in response to an earlier blog post:

“I don’t have the innate gift that you’ve been blessed with—a seeming willingness to be seen and known by strangers, the world at large.”

First, I want to make it clear that I spent most of my childhood hiding from attention and actively avoiding failure. I never raised my hand in class, even when I knew the answer (which was most of the time). I’d practice doing things in the privacy of my room — speeches, dance moves, exercises — until I was sure I wouldn’t fail the test, get laughed off the stage, or be kicked off the team.

I’ve never been free-and-breezy when it comes to putting myself out there.

Second, if you think it’s easy for me, it’s either because: a) you don’t know me very well; b) you definitely didn’t know me as a kid; and/or c) because my years and years of intentional practice is finally paying off.

At some point, I found out that participating and looking silly (or loving and getting burned) was way more interesting than observing life from the sidelines. With time and patience and age and the humility to realize that no one is really watching anyway, I’ve pushed through many of my inhibitions. But an innate gift? Not by a long shot.

Want Some Science to Back It Up?

I’m not officially trained in self-compassion or mindfulness, but my recover-and-move-forward instincts match up pretty well with the science in that area. Lucky for me, because it goes against what most of us have been taught about failure.

The cultural messages we’ve absorbed say things like,
”Suck it up!”
”Soldier on.”
”Try harder.”
”Keep your chin up!”
”No pain, no gain.”
”Don’t let your guard down.”

We’re trained to outwardly grit our teeth and pretend it’s all good while we inwardly berate ourselves for mucking things up, right? Our self-talk can be pretty cruel.

Many of us choose to not throw our hat in the proverbial ring at all, for fear of failing, losing, or looking like a poser/idiot/fraud/amateur.

Dr. Kristen Neff is an associate professor at the University of Texas, Austin and a self-compassion researcher. She teaches a simple formula of “portable therapy” (I love that imagery — mine comes in a flowery carpet bag like Mary Poppins’) to transform moments of suffering into opportunities for love and healing. Here’s how she lays it out:

[Bad Thing Happens]

Step 1: Allow yourself to feel your feelings, even when you think you “shouldn’t.” Admit what’s going on. (“This sucks! I feel like a loser.”)

Step 2: Remind yourself of the common humanity of struggle and suffering. (In other words, “To err is human” and also/again, “Shit happens.”)

Step 3: Treat yourself the way you’d treat a good friend, with words and gestures of kindness. (Ask yourself, “What do I need in this moment?” A hug? A good cry? Hot cocoa? An inanimate object to punch?)

That’s it! That’s the (shorter) recipe for getting back on your feet, jumping back on the horse, dusting yourself off, righting the ship, going back in the ring, and all those other clichés about resilience that gloss over the important work that needs to be done between the falling down and the getting back up.

It’s In My Job Description, For Better or Worse

As an artist and solo-entrepreneur, every time I make or offer something new, I risk failure. Maybe no one will want or like or buy my thing — then what? Over the 10+ years I’ve been in business, I’ve gotten used to this failure + recovery dynamic, but it’s still hard. The perfectionism of my younger self — my embarrassment about looking foolish — still lingers in the corners of my mind. It takes continuous self-talk to keep putting myself out there.

Having a supportive inner circle of confidantes helps immensely. So does the positive feedback I get from readers and students and art viewers. But I know that I need to be my own number one cheerleader, and keep strengthening my resilience muscles, or this thing — this honest, meaningful work that’s in alignment with who I am — won’t work.

Your Turn

What about you?
Any recent failures that provided a beautiful opportunity to practice self-compassion?
If you didn’t see it that way at first, can you reframe what happened in a more forgiving, loving light?
If you haven’t failed recently, is that a sign that you’re playing it too safe, and maybe staying too small — not showing up fully in your life?

Hint: The Answer is Always ART ;)

This is gonna sound weird, but If you want a safe place to risk failure and practice resilience, sign up for one of my art workshops! It could be that when you think or say, “I’m not creative,” what you’re really saying is “I’m afraid to risk looking foolish by doing something I might not instantly be amazing at.”

My recovering-perfectionist self understands that fear completely.

If you come (here’s the current schedule), I promise to support your self-compassion practice. :) If you’re too far away to come to one of my workshops, I’ve got some YouTube videos that can give you some guidance in painting with acrylics, making mosaics, or doodling with intention (and dealing with your inner critic).

Here’s to making our stuff, and being kind to ourselves in the process.