Work in a creative field and you’ll be constantly reminded that rejection is part of the job. But what you won’t often hear through your day-to-day slog is that rejection can be a sign you’re doing groundbreaking work.
Some of the greatest artists and inventors of all time had their ideas initially rejected–Pythagoras, George Orwell, Igor Stravinsky, Vincent van Gogh–the list goes on. Philosopher and economist John Stewart Mill made the claim in the 1800s that every great movement or idea must go through three stages: ridicule, discussion, and adoption. This still holds true today.
The explanation is simple enough: uncertainty makes people squeamish, and creativity and uncertainty go hand-in-hand.
“Creativity involves uncertainty because it is difficult to know the consequences of something truly new,” writes Seana Moran, psychology professor at Clark University in The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity. “The belief is that novelty makes a situation more uncertain for the rest of us, which gives rise to anxiety.”
New innovations are often rejected simply because people don’t have a point of reference for them. We resist what we don’t know, hesitating to put our faith behind breakthrough ideas, so that they often face what Leslie Ehm, founder of the firm Three Training, calls the “Rejection Conundrum.”
Research has backed this claim. According to Jennifer Mueller, associate professor of management at University of San Diego, people have a bias against creative ideas when faced with uncertainty.
But that rejection might be just the thing your creativity needs to thrive. Research has also shown that rejection can enhance creativity in individuals who embrace it. Scholars at Cornell University and Johns Hopkins found that being “an outcast” can result in greater creativity and commercial success.
In their study, researchers told participants that everyone would be able to choose who they worked with. But breaking the group up, they later told participants in one group that no one had chosen to work with them. The researchers then gave both groups-–the ones who’d been told they were rejected and the other group–the same challenge. The rejected participants produced more creative results. “The experience of social rejection may indeed stimulate creativity,” the researchers concluded.
So, how do you overcome the sting of rejection and minimize that negative reaction from others when you present them with a new ideas? “Connecting the idea to more familiar ideas, such as previous successful projects or similar works, will … increase the odds that your idea will be seen as practical and desirable, ” says David Burkus, author of the book The Myths of Creativity.
The other takeaway: start growing a thicker skin, embrace your rejection, and you may find that it feeds your creativity.