Failure is Overrated and Other Myths About Rejection as a Path to Your Dreams

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I was born prepared to conquer the world.  I come from working class roots and am the second person in my extended family to go to college.  I’m not sure where I got the idea that I was meant for greatness or how I determined early on that I was going to make my own way in the world given how I started,  but I was willing and eager to pay my dues in the steadfast belief that one miraculous day upon surviving a sufficient number of rejections with grace and dignity, I would emerge from the ashes of my past failures into the glorious realization that my greatest dreams had come true.

We’ve elevated rejection in the West as a precursor to success to such an extent that when I googled “rejection is overrated” I found hundreds of quotes about the significance of rejection as more essential to success than success itself.   Rejection proves we’ve tried, it makes us stronger and more prepared to handle success once it comes, it shows us what we’re made of, it’s proof we are on the right path because the wrong path rejected our attempts to be someplace we didn’t belong.  People who openly admit they are giving up are seen as failures and Americans are terrified of failure as though its some kind of contagious disease.

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Rejection has served a purpose in my life more times than I can count,  and even though I no longer cry myself sick in the back of the closet when I get my thanks but no thanks email, it’s still death by a thousand cuts.  It will always hurt that people who once believed in me more than I believed in myself express shock and surprise that I’ve “stuck with it after all these years,” and it will always be a knife in my heart that people who experienced rejection for two or three years before finding success now consider themselves experts in the art of “never giving up.”

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I am tired of  people like Lady Gaga saying “If you have a dream, fight for it,” when she had her first hit record at 21 and an Oscar at 33.  The Beatles were turned down by every record company except Capitol Records.  The band formed in 1960 and they had their first hit in 1962.  U2 formed in 1976 and had two hit singles in 1983.   Oprah Winfrey was a co-anchor on the evening news at 19.   The road to get there wasn’t easy.  No road is and everyone experiences rejection.  But everywhere you turn there are examples of people who experienced heartbreak and rejection but found success within a few short years, and no shortage of people who are terrified to think that hard work and persistence don’t always lead to success when the plain and simple fact is, it doesn’t.

I was smart, beautiful, and funny as a young woman.  I can write, paint, cook, and sew, and I had more power tools than most men I knew at one point in time (and knew how to use them).  I was constantly in search of opportunities and I wasn’t afraid to act on them.  I moved from Oregon to California by myself, went to Europe for the first time alone,  bought a house in North Carolina where I knew exactly two other people, spent three months every year at an art show in Arizona and drove as many back roads and two lane highways through the middle of nowhere across 2500 miles that I could find to get there and back.  I talked my way into art galleries, sent portfolios to magazines and TV shows, and when the economy crashed I held down four jobs to keep from losing everything I had before my husband and I started a mobile RV repair  business from scratch.  I wrote screenplays in the front seat of a service van in between business calls, taught myself how to create pitch decks, chased down any agent, manager or producer who would read my work then fostered those relationships however and whenever I could.   I ask for what I want even when people tell me what I want isn’t possible,  and if I see an opportunity that isn’t right for me, I find someone it is right for.

I have been extremely fortunate to have had some incredible experiences in my life and I know that.  But  I find myself wondering if I am delusional for refusing to recognize that the dreams I’ve  had since I was ten are as far away as they were fifty years ago. It doesn’t take a genius to realize you can have all the passion and talent and drive in the world and if you are still at it decades later then maybe it was never meant to be.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have grown to appreciate all the times something I desperately wanted didn’t work out, or how something I didn’t want turned out to be exactly what I needed.  I’ve chased after men I had no business being with and discovered talents I never knew I had because I had to do something I didn’t want to.

But I wonder if Lady Gaga would be an eager proponent of  persistence and the benefits of rejection in the fight for her dreams if she found herself at 60 singing karaoke on the weekends after her day job at the supermarket when her goal at 20 was to become a major star. Her dreams came true and I am glad they did.  Mine however are getting farther and farther away and the stigma of not being able to speak my truth about the reality of what it feels like to know I’ve failed at achieving them is often harder than watching the dream itself die.  “Don’t give up,” people say.  “You’re so close.  I can feel it.”  But I am seven months away from turning sixty and if it was hard to make it in the film business at 20 because a) I was a woman and b) I wrote about women, imagine what its like to be going on sixty really no closer to seeing this dream become a reality than it ever was and  now I have even less of a chance because I am “too old.”

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Yayoi Kusama is the most successful female artist in history. She was 64 when her work was discovered in  poorly lit banquet hall in Japan after decades spent in New York where everyone from Joseph Cornell to Andy Warhol stole liberally from her.  The constant rejections drove her to enter a mental hospital where she continues to live by choice, and when I watched the documentary about her I felt as though I understood more than most that rejection is part of life, but constant failure is debilitating when you’ve done the hard work and your only chance at redemption is the fading hope that “someone out there” will step up to champion you to the right people.  Kusama creates art now out of necessity and I write and paint for the same reasons but I no longer agree that never giving up, or giving in, that never conceding the fight is a goal worth achieving.  I may have failed, but I am not a failure for calling rejection out for what it is.

Janis Joplin said in a letter to her parents just before she died, “No one wants me to win more than I do.” I did the work.  For four long decades, I did the work and gave everything I had to the pursuit of a dream.  I didn’t get married.  I didn’t have kids.  I devoted myself to learning my craft,  to challenging the status quo and then,  perfecting the art of pulling myself up by my bootstraps to formulate a new plan, a new approach,  to foster new relationships, to ask for what I wanted knowing I might not get it, to believing with all my heart that one day the call would come that made forty years of heartbreak worth it.

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There comes a time when you have to tell yourself, this dream is not coming true and there is no shame in publicly stating I am done. I have a good life and I am learning to be happy without goals and with pursuing smaller dreams.  I tell myself I could be a mother who lost a child to gun violence or a wife trying to raise children alone after my husband died in Afghanistan or Iraq.  Try as I may,  I will never understand why God gave me these talents and the drive to do something with them if I was never meant to discover what I am supposed to do with my life.

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At the end of the day, rejection has taught me a lot.  And what it has taught me is that rejection as a path to my dreams is insanely overrated.   And I’m okay with giving up.  What I’m not okay with is beating my head against this wall anymore for the sake of it.

Because failure IS an option.  And like the man once said…”It’s important to be good at something.”