Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

How Rejection Breeds Creativity

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 insights on: Innovation, Motivation, Risk-Taking

David Burkus

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David Burkus is assistant professor of management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University, where he teaches courses on creativity, entrepreneurship, and organizational behavior. He is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas.
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