Sunday, January 15, 2012

Rejection and Self-Worth

We have all suffered rejection of various kinds.  I will defer the issue of unrequited love for another time and focus instead on the rejection of work.  I have been wondering which is worse: rejection of scientific work or creative work.

When you submit an original research article for publication, you intentionally aim high.  You choose a journal that is perhaps a little out of your league in the hope that maybe, just maybe, it will deign to include your work (after extensive revisions).  You know that the most likely outcome is rejection, but you tell yourself that it is worth a try.  You may lose a few months waiting for the impending disappointment.  Once you receive it though, you will move on and resubmit to a slightly less high-powered journal.  You attempt to comfort yourself with the objectivity of the process: the editors have considered your sample size, your study design, your statistical techniques, your subject matter and decided it is not quite right for them.  They have rejected your article but they have not rejected you, as a person or as a scholar.

The rejection of creative work can affect you on a very personal level.  You have distilled a part of yourself into a poem, a story, or a piece of art.  It represents you and your world.  It has taken some measure of courage to reveal it to others.  When this work is turned down, it is hard to avoid feeling that you have been rejected.  You can still comfort yourself with rationalizations.  The literary journal must have received thousands of submissions but only had room for a few.  You are equally good; you just didn’t fit this time.

I keep meticulous track of my submissions.  My list of poems is a catalogue of rejections.  I comfort myself on occasion by looking at the accepted ones (they are on the list too) but I assume that they will always be in the minority.  If I don’t keep aiming a little out of my league, I won’t advance.

Despite any efforts to the contrary, I will probably always take rejections personally to some degree.  Both creative and scientific works are a part of myself.  A research study is based on fact rather than experience, but facts still require interpretation.  Study design, conduct and analysis are creative endeavors.  Professional identity is a crucial element of my self-concept, just as artistic identity is.

All rejection is painful.  To move on, we need to cultivate a sense of self-worth that lies somewhere beyond the affirmation of others.  Yes, the journal (literary or scientific) has rejected your work.  You feel that it has rejected you.  But you do not need its permission to exist.  You are your work, but you are also more.

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