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.
load comments (168)
  • greeneye

    To be honest what ever we do we need a bit of luck to get ahead to meet the right people to help us on, the creative world is a tough one there are many of us out there and yes rejection can help us one but it can also break some of us.
    And its the old saying its not what you know its who you know and what chances you get to try and prove yourself.
    Lady Gaga may of being rejected once but it more than just her that got her to where she is now

  • Tia Dobi

    Before that Adolph was consistently beaten to a pulp (for years as a kid) by his alcoholic father. He also spent almost a decade sleeping in the ice frozen streets (homeless) before seeking a roof over his head and a warm bed in the military.
    Why wouldn’t it be wise to consider these experiences?

  • Tia Dobi

    Rejection doesn’t breed creativity anymore than money breeds happiness. With a certain skill, used in a certain way, rejection can help fuel creativity. I like to say, “Create from rejection” . It’s one tool and a wonderful thing. Any skill has to be honed… creating from rejection is a skill one can learn. Like from this article!

    Also… everyone handles rejection/pain differently so at its core… pain is the issue here (not rejection). Expressing pain is individualistic.

    Look at the lead characters in the movies “Forest Gump” and “The Fisher King”.

    One ran for 2 years, the other became homeless.

    Feeling pain, expressing pain is a human characteristic that would be well taught in schools.

  • João Alves

    Kenneth, actually i don’t think rejection is synonym for isolation. Actually, some of my working plans had better result as a group but all individually focused. Time-to-time brainstorms or discussions helped to get the middle point between the two ways of studying/working.

  • Selam Girma

    As the above may be true, and some comments about there are millions that aren’t as famous as others, I think the most difficult part is the human rejection or the desire to please others that I’m tired of. Especially as a student of design, I think, the most difficult thing is dealing with a professor’s approval. I think it’s exhausting to seek other’s approval, but design or art isn’t going to be appreciated if another person like it or dislike it enough to talk about it.

  • rich

    Always good to see people overcome setbacks. Here is another interesting short article at http://www.beckabellastyleinsp

  • Capture Your Flag

    You are welcome.

  • Sari Grove

    This study is fatally flawed…There is a difference between being rejected in a rather short term study & the type of rejection that plagues artists in the real world…The rejections that happened during the study were not enough to beat the participants down…To cause them to question their self-worth or even their very existence…I think it is dangerous to buy into a study that is making conclusions based on such limited information…What I have seen, in my life, & I am 46 years old now, is that people who are nurtured & loved & happy & are given support, sometimes unconditional support which sometimes includes grants or other assistance, do well, creatively…I don’t agree at all that rejection is good for creatives, or anyone else for that matter…Those who do are either sadists or masochists…Hug an artist, tell them they are great, tell them you love their work, watch how the creativity flows…This study is not scientific at all…

  • pm

    For example tasks from the RAT test mentioned in the article, visit http://www.remote-associates-t

  • HilaryOutThere

    Now that’s a counter intuitive connection…Oral Roberts University Professor and Lady Gaga! Coolio!

  • Cayla Buettner

    Based on this, next time I go into an audition or a job interview, I’m going to accept that I didn’t get the role before I go in (rejection) and use that to fuel the audition or interview I would have given after I ran it back through my head from being rejected – hopefully giving a better interview or audition the first time around. Would this work?

  • Daniel

    True, too much rejection is certainly bad for you, but too much of anything is bad for you. The point is, the vast majority of people don’t experience an overwhelming amount of rejection in their lives, so doesn’t it make sense that this study focused on a realistic, “median” amount of rejection for people to cope with? Wouldn’t that make the study the most relevant to the most people?

    • Sari Grove

      “The point is, the vast majority of people don’t experience an overwhelming amount of rejection in their lives”…I have no idea what you are talking about here…

    • Sasha

      Most people do deal with a large amount of rejection in their lives, and consistently throughout their lives. You’ve been a lucky one, or maybe not put yourself out there with the risk of getting hurt as much, but it’s a hard thing in life to avoid.

      • Daniel

        You’re right, I can really only base my opinion on the matter of rejection based off my experiences, and those who have shared theirs with me, same as anyone else. So what makes you think that most people experience a consistently dramatic amount of rejection throughout their lives?

      • Sasha

        I think a “consistently dramatic amount” is not what the author was measuring it by. Rejection doesn’t have to be dramatic or life-changing to still be present. I am going only by my own personal viewpoint as well, like you are. This year alone I’ve watched break ups, a startup folding, grad school rejections, friend losses, job losses, as well as the smaller kind that pass quietly (an unanswered email pitch, a project cut, etc.), go through both me and those around me. Some are more life-altering than others, some handled with sobbing and others with gritted teeth. Like the author was saying, it’s all about how you react to set backs. Some things that could be classified as rejections were viewed as momentary set backs or a sign to try another path and were built upon for the better. It’s all about perspective.

  • Laura

    Sometimes, when I am completely dejected, it’s either create or self-destruct; it’s either turn the pain into a poem or blow my brains out. I may be exaggerating, but it feels that way at the time, not from a simple rejection such as a denial, but from something really big, something personal. Recently, I was harassed, lied about, and forced out of my job. That was followed by financial difficulty and a physical injury. If I didn’t turn to creativity, I would get very dark and hopeless. Instead, pain can be used as grist for the mill, or in my case, a poem called, “How To Make Yourself a Target.”

  • Danielle Nichole

    Its always hard at first when my work is rejected, but I don’t take it personally because its not about me, its a subjective opinion about my work. The rejection makes me more driven to improve and keep producing work. In return, I grow and strengthen my skills.

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