A television pitch that I helped write was passed on by a production company this week. This isn’t, in itself, much of a surprise. Rejections happen all the time in life, let alone in television. But the manner of this particular rejection was, let’s say, interesting.
To be fair to the rejector, her words weren’t necessarily meant for our eyes — she was replying to another developer who’d forwarded our pitch to her — but nonetheless, I found those words, let’s persist in saying, interesting.
The email began:
It’s nice to hear from you — thanks for getting in touch with us about this project. I certainly admire their dedication and determination with this, they’re not ones to take no for an answer are they?!
The project wouldn’t be one for us though at the moment unfortunately […] It’s a real shame because, as I say, I really admire their chutzpah!
Sending a pitch out to television companies looking for scripts to develop isn’t usually what I’d call chutzpah and the language of this particular rejection could be read as patronising, but that would do a disservice to the truth: chutzpah is what it takes to get stuff made.
Chutzpah is exactly what T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock struggled with: ‘Do I dare disturb the universe?’ and later, equally as ambitious: ‘Do I dare to eat a peach?’
Needless to say, Prufrock ends his days gazing out to sea, wondering ‘would it have been worth while, to have bitten off the matter with a smile’? He’ll never know.
Chutzpah gets things moving. Chutzpah is what Prufrock needs to squeeze ‘the universe into a ball, to roll it towards some overwhelming question’.
That question, for Prufrock as for us, isn’t necessarily a cosmic one. It might be as simple as following up on an unanswered pitch I sent to the Guardian last week: I know you can’t reply to every pitch, but just checking — did you get my email?
The developer was absolutely right: dedication and determination are essential character traits – in pretty much every human endeavour, let alone the creative arts. We need to keep putting out what she calls chutzpah: a thick skin she just helped make thicker.
The job of the artist is to inspire the people with money to pay for the art. The people with the money never want to pay for the art. They are only there to make the money.
[…] Half the job [of being an artist] is making the art and the other half is being a politician for your art and coming up with a believable, positive, forward-thinking, money-making story around why your story matters.
So what have you been rejected for recently? Follow it up: maybe with an even more forward-thinking, money-making story, or simply by trying to inspire some other person with money to pay for your art.
Now is not the time to step back into the shadows, like Prufrock, and cry out, ‘No!’:
I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two
Instead: follow up, finish the scene, be there when the curtain falls.
My call with Documentally was interesting because, as someone often audacious, he was anxious that his audacity could be draining the world of generosity.
What if his asking meant other, more needy people would miss out? And what if everyone went around acting audacious and asking for free cups of tea? What would happen then? Wouldn’t all the tea sellers go bankrupt and leave us bereft of warming beverages?
Documentally also said that he always feels an obligation to reply his debt of gratitude to the people who help him. He’d been expecting me to share the location of the beachside kiosk where I got my free tea last week.
It didn’t even cross my mind. Why not? I have no good answer to that question, and now feel like an ungrateful little swine. 🙂
In my defence, the thesis of my writing was not about the kiosk – or even about generosity. Generosity is the flip side to audacity, and a story for another day.
I also never imagined that you lovely readers would ever be interested in visiting that particular kiosk, so why would I share its address?
But why ever not? Embedded in my somewhat solipsistic writing was an endorsement of a generous hearted kiosk operator. Why wouldn’t other people want to visit this kindly young man and exploit – sorry, reward his generosity? Especially as I know at least 7 people who visit Bournemouth on the regular.
So, without further analysis, if you ever find yourself in Bournemouth, then the kiosk you absolutely must visit is attached to the Versuvio restaurant on the seafront at Alum Chine. If you’re looking for What3Words, it’s still.slave.status, which is heartbreaking.
The karmic torpedo
We could enjoy an hour or two addressing Documentally’s other concerns, throwing around arguments for and against the karmic repercussions of audacity. But a story Beth told me pretty much torpedoes the whole argument.
You see, something similar happened to Beth the other day – except she really had forgotten her wallet, and really was gasping for a tea.
She was out with a friend, walking the dog, so went into the park cafe and asked if she could have a free cup of tea. The woman behind the counter said yes.
So, while she was there, Beth asked if her friend could have a tea as well – oh and these wafers look good – and how about a doggy treat for Jilly?
Think that’s taking the piss? I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Firstly because Beth offered to come back and pay – and actually did. But secondly, and I think more importantly, because of this story’s torpedo effect on Documentally’s karmic concerns.
What is normal? This is normal
Everyone has a totally different take on what defines normal behaviour. Did Beth think her ask was audacious? Maybe a little, but clearly not to the extent that I did when, knees a-knocking, I asked for my free cuppa.
For Beth this behaviour was, although not an everyday occurrence, at least within the boundaries of normal. And why ever not? She wasn’t coercing the cafe server. She didn’t act entitled (although it has been said that no one is more ready to be famous), she asked.
As long as you stay on the right side of audacity, you should have no worries over the karmic repercussions of asking.
Indeed, I’d go much, much further. I think it is vitally important – for all of us, people and planet – that you act with audacity.
Would the world be a better place if everyone were so audacious? Yes, without question, it would.
Why we need an audacious world
Audacity puts an end to all regrets (and crimes) of omission. It wouldn’t put an end to regret itself – it’s perfectly possible to do something audacious that you later regret. But we regret the things we do far less and far less frequently than we regret the things we never did.
In an audacious world, there would be zero elderly men, nodding by the fire, dreaming what might have been if only they’d asked Mary to the ball in 1953 – zero!
There would be zero working women wondering what might have been if only they’d asked for a raise ten years earlier – zero!
And there would be zero activists wondering what might have been if they’d only done something more than sign a petition – zero!
Because, in an audacious world, they would have asked. It is in our acts of audacity that we improve our lives and the lives of others. In audacity, we don’t hold back; we leave it all out there; we do our best.
Anxiety is the opposite of audacity
I’m not saying that if you ask audaciously you will always receive bounty, of course not.
But the energy we channel into our anxiety over whether we’ll be rejected would be far better spent on dealing with the rejection (if and when it comes) and then asking someone else on a date, looking for a new job, or starting a more ambitious campaign.
The opposite of audacity is not, as you might think, conventional behaviour. The opposite of audacity is anxiety.
No one goes through life thinking purely conventional thoughts. No matter how straight-laced that man you see on his office commute every morning, you can bet your life that he’s fantasised about some pretty audacious behaviour in his time.
And you can bet your afterlife that he beats himself up about his conventional existence every single day. Instead of audacity, he feels anxiety.
Why practise audacity?
Breaking our habits of convention is not easy. We focus on the pain of failure far more often than we dare to imagine success.
Some people, like Beth, are pretty well practised at asking for what they want, but the rest of us can improve by taking on low-stakes audacity challenges where our future (not to mention our fragile pride) doesn’t depend on the outcome.
These training challenges will be different for each of us. For me, it might be taking a guitar out to the beach and playing for passers-by.
For you, it might be sitting down on a park bench and talking to a stranger (wait – that one’s for me too).
For someone else, it might be leaving work unfinished and goofing off for an hour to listen to birdsong (wait – that one’s also for me).
If nothing too bad happens, then screw your courage to the sticking place and try something even more audacious.
Audacity today; audacity tomorrow
Slowly, through this practice, we hope to learn that no matter how audacious, neither our future nor our foolish pride will ever depend on the outcome of one act.
Yes, our actions today will go some way to moulding our tomorrow, but tomorrow will be as ripe for audacity as today ever was. Even if you totally mess up, you have the chance to choose again, and right your course.
So meet tomorrow’s audacious opportunities tomorrow, without looking past those coming ripe today.
The risk is that the alternative to audacity – anxiety – will keep us frozen in place. Do you want to keep on making the same mistakes tomorrow as you did today? That’s one definition of hell.
The best thing that has ever happened to me, has just happened to me.
In the spirit of rejection therapy, I left the house with the intention of sitting out on the clifftops and writing my newsletter with a nice cup of tea.
What’s this got to do with rejection therapy? Well, I didn’t take any money with me.
And yet, here I am, sitting out on the clifftops, writing my newsletter with a nice cup of tea.
There was no queue at the beach kiosk, but I still had to stand and wait while the kiosk guy faffed with the bins, head down. Pop music was playing loudly from an old speaker.
I was just wondering whether I should make some customer-like noise or take this golden opportunity to run away and save my embarrassment, when the kiosk guy lifted his head.
‘What can I do for you, buddy?’
Here we go: ‘This is an absolutely outrageous request, but I’ve come out with no money – I couldn’t have a tea, could I?’
He didn’t answer, just smiled a wry smile, and went to the machine.
‘That’s so kind, thank you. If you give me a receipt, I’ll come back and pay another time.’
‘No, no. I’m not going to make a fuss over a bit of hot water and a teabag – it’s nothing.’
What a legend. I mean, he’s not wrong: a bit of hot water and a teabag is nothing. But still! He didn’t have to do that.
As I walked away, I thought to myself – actually, I said out loud to no one but the gulls, ‘This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.’
Then I sat down on the clifftops and took a satisfied sip.
Do you think kiosk guy would mind if I went back and asked for one with no milk? No, no – forget it.
On audacity and entitlement
There is a fine line between audacity and entitlement. The distinction, I think, is in the emotions attached.
An audacious move expects rejection. As a result, rejection doesn’t lead to resentment, and acceptance gives you such a buzz of gratitude.
Audacity, somehow, brings people closer together. If you asked me right now, I’d probably give that kiosk guy my spare kidney.
Entitlement, by contrast, leaves both sides cold. Entitlement expects acceptance – or at least acquiescence. The entitled feel no such buzz of gratitude – because they’re only getting the bare minimum they reckon they’re owed by the universe.
Meanwhile, the victim of entitlement can only feel resentment that they have been plonked onto a lower station in the social hierarchy, and exploited. Were the victim to stand up against entitlement, they will face aggression, passive or explicit.
Audacity is the world as an open game of negotiation, engagement, and possibility. Entitlement, by contrast, is the world as a closed system of rules, privacy and hierarchy.
Do you dare to eat a peach?
Hot last weekend, wasn’t it?
Families were streaming to the beach in their thousands. As we pulled up to the cliffs car park, a family were relaxing in deck chairs around their camper, polishing off a barbecue lunch.
Hanging from the night before, one of our party made an audacious move: ‘Smells great, guys. Any chance you’ve got a burger going spare?’
Of course they have. The materfamilias takes delight in splitting a roll and filling it with charred meat and oleaginous relish: but who would dare ask? Who would squeeze the universe into a ball, to roll it toward some overwhelming question?
Clearly, a burger and a cup of tea are pretty small fry. But you can’t begin by asking for the earth. Not even when you are asking for the earth.
Extinction Rebellion didn’t begin with a blockade of London. I imagine it began the same way as the US civil rights movement, the South African rebellion against Apartheid, the revolution in Egypt, and the English Civil War: with an invitation to a meeting in a small room in a flat.
But the modesty of that first meeting doesn’t mask the audacity of the agenda.
Rebellions begin with audacity. In fact, all change – large and small, public and personal – begins with audacity: the audacity to imagine an alternative.
Asking your future partner out for a coffee for the first time. Negotiating for a job, or a raise. Dropping everything to travel overland to Australia – or buying a £550 Nissan Micra to drive to Siberia (never mind that the interior is carpeted entirely in greengrocer’s astroturf). Replacing commercial advertising billboards with more honest messages. Typing the first words into an empty script.
They say that the best things in life are free; I wouldn’t argue with that. But I think it’s more accurate to say that the best things in life are audacious.
My audacity at the kiosk was contrived: I knew before I left the flat that I was going to ask for a free tea. I could instead have come out with my wallet and paid for a tea that I can easily afford.
Other people don’t have it so easy. Do you think the kiosk guy would’ve been so generous to a dishevelled man who carries all his worldly goods in two stuffed plastic bags? Maybe, maybe not.
But this was never a test of my privilege. This was a test of my mettle, training my audacity for greater challenges ahead.
By asking for a tea that I didn’t really need, I tested my courage to engage and negotiate so that when I do really need audacity, I have reserves of confidence to call upon.
There are three stages to a rejection therapy challenge:
Aim for rejection. Expect the answer ‘no’, but ask anyway. Don’t worry that the challenge isn’t big or clever enough – if you think you’ll be rejected, that’s plenty big and clever.
Failure is success. You’ve found your limits – for now. Try the same challenge again, with different people, and different approaches.
Success is failure. A cup of tea – as the kiosk guy pointed out – is nothing. Next time, be bolder, push yourself further.
Above all, if other people are involved, be charming. Smile. Be frank about the fact you’re asking something ridiculous and weird. Have a laugh about it and you might just find yourself a co-conspirator.
And when you are rejected – congratulations! – smile again, say thank you, and walk away with the deep satisfaction that you’ve pushed against your horizon of audacity, and – for now – found its limit.
What about you? Is this concept of audacity useful? How could you be more audacious right now?
By the way, the smug photo of me with my free tea was taken by an Iranian MBA student I met on the clifftops.
As well as my wallet, I came out without my camera, so I walked up to this woman and asked if she could take one on her phone and email it to me.
After last week’s missive on rejection, this week I’ve dabbled in a little rejection therapy. I can’t tell you the story of what I tried on Wednesday, but I can describe what happened when I took rejection out for a spin yesterday.
Picture the scene…
Drenched on the aptly named Fishponds Road, I walk out of the rain and into a hair salon. A lone woman sits in an armchair (I can already see that it’s a special kind of salon), footling with her phone.
‘Hi there. I’ve got a bit of a strange request.’ Oh god. That sounds like I’m going to ask for a lumbar massage. ‘Well, it’s not that strange. I’ll explain. I’m a comedy writer and – ‘ Confused looks. Legitimise, legitimise! ‘It’s for the BBC.’ Back on track. ‘It’s a sitcom set in a hair salon and I like to come into salons and, you know, soak up the atmosphere.’ What am I saying? Who, you know, knows that? ‘Would you mind if I sat here for fifteen minutes, if you’re not busy – or you can get on with what your doing, I can sit in the corner while you…’
This is a definite no.
She puts her phone down: ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’
I’ve caught Lara at a good moment. She’s got 15 minutes before her next client – an unusual occurrence at Tame The Mane, the only all-vegan, all-natural hair salon in the UK.
Teaching English to Libyan teenagers divided by Gaddafi’s Little Green Book, Lara dreamt of escaping that dead-end and running her own business. She spent 3 years writing up a business plan to set up a cafe, before her little brother had the temerity to suggest she open a salon.
Temerity because Lara hates hairdressers and, even more so, salons. She couldn’t sleep for three nights after her brother’s infuriating suggestion.
But the barb had lodged.
‘I’ve loved hairdressing since I was five or six. I used to beg my grandmother to do her hair. Every Sunday night: Can I do your hair, can I do your hair?’
As a teenager, Lara learnt hairdressing from an Italian woman and cutting hair became a great sideline for cash right through her English degree and even while she was teaching.
Then she realised that maybe her brother had a point: she couldn’t be the only one who hated your typical salons.
Sometimes we struggle to see what was right in front of us all along.
Tame The Mane looks more like a stylish living room than a styling salon. Potted plants crawl along any available surface. The walls are decorated with portraits of colourful women – not crass posed photographs, but original oils and pastels.
Lara wanted to create an anti-salon atmosphere and thought that her all-vegan, all-natural approach would draw in an exclusively (and quite possibly penniless) hippie clientele.
There’s a record player (‘Can’t play records, though, because of all the hair – didn’t think that one through’) and a bookcase where she does book swaps.
But she was far wrong about the hippies.
The mirrors are covered with scarfs, and Lara will only remove them if a client asks. So she gets a lot of clients who suffer from anxiety in other salons. ‘I get people who haven’t set foot in a salon for years.’
(Plus it’s weird, huh, having someone watch your every move while you do your job. I hate people looking over my shoulder when I write.)
Lara passes me what looks like a laminated menu. It’s a lucid explanation about why she only uses natural products, about how the salon business is so often built on convincing customers to put crap in their hair.
She offers suggestions about how we can reduce our reliance on products that aren’t all that different to Fairy Liquid, from diluting harsh shampoos to simply using a squeeze of lemon juice.
The back of the ‘menu’ has two recipes for Lara’s products: an oat conditioner and a flax gel. They sound delicious. There are more on her blog, free for you to create for yourself. If you don’t have the time, Lara’s got her own apothecary out the back.
With a mischievous smile she suggests that, if you want a protein-enriched wash, you should really just crack an egg on your head (although not in her vegan salon). It strengthens the hair, and gives a really nice shine, she says.
As an English graduate, Lara often dreams of writing her salon stories up. I’m lucky to have the chance to turn lives like hers into, well, this. And who knows what snippets from our conversation might turn up in Series 3 of Foiled…
It’s not every week that I read a book cover-to-cover in under 48 hours.
Admittedly, at only 200 pages Rejection Proof by Jia Jiang is a quick read, but I absolutely guttled those pages.
Why? Because Jiang offers a creative solution to a problem that I think almost every live human being struggles with: rejection.
This video is how I first heard about Jiang’s 100 Days of Rejection experiment. It’s a good primer for what follows. Enjoy.
Dave’s Short History of Rejection
My history of rejection is short not because my life has been an endless cavalcade of glorious successes, but because, for the most part, I have gone to great lengths to avoid sticking my neck out and asking for anything, you know, worthwhile.
Example 1: Romantic Rejection
It took me until 2013 before I first told someone I really liked that I really liked them. Terrifying.
They did indeed reject my approach, but frankly by that point I didn’t care. The panic over saying anything to this person far outweighed the disappointment of the negative response by about a million to one.
This million-to-one ratio is about the same for ‘Love interests I longed to approach’ against ‘Love interests I actually approached’.
Combined with my everyday fear of social rejection, the number of missed opportunities for connection with other human beings is staggering, and all because of an egotistic, and unnecessary, fear of rejection.
Example 2: Book Rejection
For the most part, I have avoided professional rejection by not taking a profession. When I have held jobs, I have tended to do the work and then go home, not doing anything that would call attention to my work and thus invite rejection (or, indeed, approbation).
I have, however, written several books. Occasionally, I have sent the manuscripts to agents and publishers and have been rejected every single time.
I think I’ve received about 5 rejection letters in my life, ever, including the following unexpectedly expensive one.
J.K. Rowling famously received 12 rejections for Harry Potter alone; William Golding got 20 for Lord of the Flies; Carrie by Stephen King garnered him 30 rejections before selling over a million copies in its first year and being turned into, not one, but three feature films, and, improbably enough, a musical.
It’s pretty easy to avoid rejection if you don’t put your work out there. I think it’s fair to say that I haven’t embraced professional rejection despite knowing full well that it is an essential part of the process.
Example 3: Rejection on the Road
Hitchhiking has taught me a lot about rejection. Standing on the side of a busy road with a smile and a sign, or walking up to strangers in service stations and begging for a lift: it’s a cold recipe for relentless rejection.
Even so, somehow I’ve always managed to get where I was going. Somehow, as Jiang says, ‘rejection has a number’ and persistence usually pays off if you’re willing to be flexible.
My least successful hitchhike involved about 3 hours of rejections – but I still got a ride (after changing my approach). How’s that for rejection? Pretty good, I’d say.
In most of the rest of my life, however, I give up after a single rejection (if I even get that far). Why is that?
Example 4: Critical Rejection
When me and Beth took Foiled to Edinburgh in 2016, we wanted to be judged. So much so that we actually paid a PR company to get critics in to review our show. We positively invited rejection.
The hefty weight of that judgement was shared between us, but it still wasn’t very nice when we got a stinking review from a well-respected critic.
I don’t think we ever seriously doubted our material, and it helped that the audiences didn’t seem to either, but the review was (and still is) there in black and white on the internet. A fulsome rejection of everything we’d worked so hard to create.
In this case, there was nothing we could do except rationalise what he had to say (it’s just one opinion, it was based on a preview, and we’d already addressed some of his criticisms) and use it as motivation to make the show the best it could be.
We didn’t shut down the PR company and tell them to invite no more critics. Thankfully, the critics kept coming and Foiled ended up with a couple of phenomenal reviews, which we could use to sell the show to producers and, ultimately, to the BBC.
Example 5: Reader Rejection
My Friday newsletter is a weekly opportunity for people to reject me and my work. The unsubscribe button is right there at the bottom of every single email.
Even if people aren’t unsubscribing, I can still see who is opening the newsletter and reading to the end. It’s usually just under half.
After over 2 years of newsletters, I have become comfortable with the fact that some people will unsubscribe and no longer read my words of comfort and joy.
I have eventually come to see unsubscribes in a positive light. It’s not that I’ve failed them, or that they are repulsed by the very essence of my being; it’s just that we weren’t a good fit for whatever reason.
Indeed, with the unsubscribers gone, my reader percentage numbers should go up – and that’s a good thing. Seen this way, unsubscribes are a gradual honing of my audience to the shape of my work.
Notice that, unlike my approach to publishing, I have persisted at newsletter-writing, drilling through the prison walls of ‘rejection’ to the green pastures of unbounded creativity.
(Whereupon I abuse my freedom and write ridiculous sentences like the foregoing.)
The lesson is that avoiding rejection can be incredibly damaging – not in the short term, perhaps, but certainly and abundantly in the long term.
What opportunities have I passed up through fear of rejection? Could I be a published novelist by now? Could I have found the loves of my lives?
Fear of rejection is a crime of omission. If you give yourself no chance of rejection, then you also have very little chance of progress.
In pursuit of 100 rejections, I put myself forward for opportunities I’d previously thought were for smarter, funnier, cooler people. And sometimes I wasn’t rejected. I wrote for new publications, got a joke-writing gig on my favorite comedian’s radio show and interviewed guests on my podcast who I’d thought wouldn’t waste their time on me.
Emily ended the year with 101 rejections and 39 acceptances.
[O]ur experiments weren’t a magic solution. Andy is still unattached, and I’m still living paycheck to paycheck. But we’ve taken more chances and come closer to getting the things we want. So I don’t regret committing to this masochistic rejection project. It made me feel embarrassed, depressed, overwhelmed and self-indulgent. But I also felt that I was moving forward instead of standing still.