On Creativity and Rejection

A former student of mine and I had a conversation right before he left; I remember it often. (The student has been working for a software giant ever since he graduated and he seems happy.)

During the conversation, he said that the job that I have, which he characterized as having to come up with new ideas all the time, was emphatically not what he wanted. What he wanted was to be given/told what to do, do it, and then move on to something else. He enjoyed the challenging tasks, but he did not want to be the one coming up with the tasks or the big picture into which these tasks fell.

I think about my job, and what he described as his dream job would be the definition of hell for me.

In my work, there is constant rejection. Papers get criticized, even if they don’t get rejected. Proposals get declined all the time, and awarded very rarely. Now I have taken up fiction writing as a hobby, which will likely come with even more rejection.

Let’s say you are like me, and you have a job and/or a hobby, where you come up with something potentially novel (e.g., an idea or a piece of art) and offer it to the world, with a high chance of the world rejecting it. Creating something new is in and of itself rewarding (to people who find it rewarding). Is rejection the price of creating? Could we just create and not seek feedback or acceptance, not engage with the world? Or is this possibility of rejection inextricable from the drive to create?

***

In real life, very few people know that I blog. Basically, only my immediate family knows about the blog and the book, and one colleague at a different institution.  (There are several people whom I first met through the blog and who know who I am, but the other way around there’s essentially no one.) You’d think the only reason is the protection offered by the pseudonym, and that is indeed a large portion of it, but there’s more.

When my mom visited last year, I gave her two hard copies of the book to take back home: one for her, one for my dad (they are divorced). Academaze was published by a small press, and small presses thrive owing to the print-on-demand concept. The concept helps even traditional publishers, as books can stay in print indefinitely.

Well, I don’t think my mom knows anything other than traditional publishing (a certain number of hard copies printed and distributed to bookstores). Plus, she might be a bit of an a$$hole. The first thing she asked me when she saw the book was, “How many copies were printed?” To her, and within traditional publishing, a good book means many copies. I tried to explain about the print-on-demand concept, and I saw that within 5 seconds she completely dismissed both me and the book as worthless. I felt foolish with my print-on-demand spiel, since she’d already made up her mind.

Over the following couple of weeks, she tried to read the book (she speaks some English, and can probably read and understand much more than she can say). She came to tell me, visibly disappointed, “You write so simply. I could understand almost everything.” My mom is not a big reader, but even she somehow expects a “good” book to mean convoluted prose. Sadly, she is not alone in this belief. (This related essay  is a long read, but engaging and thought-provoking.)

The experience with my mom is an example of why letting the people around you know what your (artistic) outlets are may be a bad idea. Sure, they might be offended by what you write about them (or how you otherwise relate to them through your outlet/art). More likely, and this is the part that bothers me about as much as someone being angry with me, is that they simply won’t give a $hit. They won’t care that you produce anything, they won’t care about what you produce, or they won’t like what you produce.

I showed a few of my stories to my DH. He liked a number of them, but the one that I thought was very good and that featured some stylistic challenges that I was proud of tackling, he didn’t like at all; he was actually irritated by it. I don’t want him to lie to me about liking or disliking something I wrote, but it just saddened me.

***

Is it meaningful to come up with scientific ideas without trying to get them funded or trying to do the work and submit it for publication? Is it meaningful to write or paint or sculpt without ever planning on showing your work? I think for some people it is, but, for many, it is not. These people who really need to engage with the potentially indifferent world can be found in all professions.

We’d bought Eldest a car about a month ago and we just had the interior detailed yesterday. I took it to this place that did a great job. The operation is small, and the owner himself also works on the cars; he’s been at it for 30 years.

It struck me how this small business owner puts himself out there every single day. He provides good service, and all he can do is offer it to people. Some will take it, but many won’t. Some will appreciate it, but many won’t. All he can do is try to be better and cheaper than the big chains, which he is, and offer what he has to the world. The world might care, or not, but he has to offer.

***

I guess there are people who want to do what they want to do, even if the price of it is rejection. Or perhaps there are people who want to do what they want to do, and cannot imagine not trying to offer the products of their mind or their hands to the world. Their creations make no sense unless there is someone on the outside of the creator to appreciate them.

People like my former student don’t seem to have that need. I am guessing there are many people like that, who are happy doing what they do, living their life, not emitting into the world. That’s a life with little rejection, and it’s certainly not a bad life if you have the right personality and mindset.

I need to emit into the world, hoping the world receives some of it.

12 comments

  1. When I was a grad student and had my first couple of papers out, my parents (mostly my dad) started asking for copies. I think he was disappointed that they were digital, and so he started asking for the ‘glossy mag’ associated with the papers. I managed to get a couple of them, once because we had a cover image and they sent me a copy and a couple of times because it was in a journal that comes with society membership. I don’t think my parents have ever actually read any of my papers, but I feel really lucky to have so much support…and a little shelf in their house with the glossy mags 🙂
    I hope your mom does better – your book is on the shelf of my lab, and we all appreciate it. It is hard to be judged by loved ones rather than celebrated.

  2. I like most of your observations but are a bit puzzled by your perspective on Former Student

    > I am guessing there are many people like that, who are happy doing what they do, living their life, not emitting into the world

    Being handed a task, completing it, and moving on can easily be a form of emission into the world. Coming up with task-generating ideas is not the only way to contribute .. completing tasks requires coming up with ideas as well. Maybe I’m not fully getting your point.

  3. Hi RFon, I probably wasn’t very clear. Let me try this:

    I wanted to make a contrast between doing something that you know is specifically needed by someone, and doing it well (thus is you do a good job, presumably low chance or rejection) — this is a common situation when someone is an employee, nothing derogatory about that — versus doing something that you are compelled to do without knowing if anyone anywhere cares about or needs or wants what you have done (and thus the chance of rejection is high) — such as when owning your own business, or being a freelancer, etc. I was referring to the latter as emitting into the world, as in — sending it out there, not knowing if there are willing recipients.

  4. Anon: Yeah, I was wondering about the “a$$hole” comment as her mother must now know about her blog. Courageous =)

  5. xykademiqz: Got it, makes sense. I guess these two sentences end-to-end might have confused me then:

    > Their creations make no sense unless there is someone on the outside of the creator to appreciate them.
    >
    > People like my former student don’t seem to have that need.

    Sorry for nit-picking.

  6. RFon, I would bet good money that my mom doesn’t read the blog even though she could. Plus, she is a bit of an a$$hole over certain things, and I make no secret that’s what I think. She loves me, but doesn’t like me or get me, if that makes sense.

    As for the things you picked up on in the second comment, they are not directly related, but I take responsibility for being unclear in writing. One had to do with the fact that creating for the sake of creating may not be enough and people want to share with the potentially disinterested outside world (so it has to do with whether creating and showcasing can be decoupled and I think not; that’s the outside of themselves bit). On the other hand you have people who don’t necessarily have much impetus to create on their own; of course they do good work and show it to other people, but it’s work that someone asked for before it was done.

  7. Some of this is an appetite and appreciation for risk. I spent a few years in a job like your student’s between undergrad and grad school: I had projects with definite end goals, and my job was to figure out how to accomplish them (hopefully with some cleverness). However, they were clearly achievable goals and I got the psychological boost when I finished them, in a week or a month. During that time, when I went on vacations, I’d plan it all myself, and expect that I’d be staying in hotels/hostels of unknown quality, walking around to find food and adventure, muddling through language, etc.

    Once I went to grad school/postdoc/prof, my working life is much more risky (for all the rejection reasons you mentioned), and the psychological “wins” are much more spaced out and irregular (paper/grant accepted, fantastic experimental result, etc). I was surprised to find that my appetite for risk is now MUCH lower in my leisure time. Once I was at a conference in Germany, and scheduled an extra day to explore the city before my flight home. When the time came, though, I just couldn’t bear to figure out the train schedule and deal with the language barrier. I ended up just walking around for an hour near the hotel then reading a book in the hotel room. Maybe once I get tenure I’ll swing back the other way again.

    In any case, this is one of the things I mention to students who are considering grad school and/or faculty careers: how much risk do you like in your working life, and how frequent to you need your wins to be.

  8. Very good essay!

    When I talk to prospective PhD students, I make it clear that the philosophy of my lab is one based on creativity. (My lab does experimental work in the physical sciences.) Students will be expected to come up with creative directions that are above and beyond the ideas of their advisor.

    I do tell them that being creative can be daunting, but that it is important that they try. I point to past students in my lab and their creative successes. But regarding risk, I do try to reassure them that if everything they tried failed, we would have a backup plan where they would work on more of a sure thing and thereby build up their confidence.

  9. Also, to add one more thing: If the student felt this way:

    “During the conversation, he said that the job that I have, which he characterized as having to come up with new ideas all the time, was emphatically not what he wanted. What he wanted was to be given/told what to do, do it, and then move on to something else.”

    …then one should ask him why he wanted to do a Ph.D. in the first place. Basically, the whole point of a Ph.D. is to contribute new knowledge to the world…which generally means coming up with new ideas. In other words, when you receive a Ph.D., the document is a testament to your ability to do original work. Doing exactly what you are told to do, even if it is at an advanced level, should be the expectation for an M.S. student, not for a Ph.D.

  10. @Ninja, in many STEM fields (particularly in the life sciences), it is necessary to have not only a PhD but years of postdoc training to get even the routine jobs that the student apparently craved. A BS or MS gets only technician-level jobs, where there is no solving the problem and moving on.

    Note: engineering fields are different, where the MS is the true working degree and the PhD is reserved for ivory-tower academics like us.

    Physics and chemistry are somewhat intermediate, with the PhD being useful, but not necessarily required for industrial jobs.

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