The hardest thing about freelancing is dealing with the “feast or famine” nature of the business. Actually, that’s not true—dealing with ‘feast’ times is stressful, sure, but it is nowhere near as awful as the fear that comes when famine hits and you’re convinced that no one will ever hire you for another writing project again.
The problem is that we experience the “famine” period as rejection as opposed to what it actually is—a lull in the business over which we rarely have control. The one thing we can control, however, is how we react to it.
I have been a writer—as a freelancer, columnist, ghostwriter, and book author—for almost my entire adult life. I’ve had times of exciting success and depressing failure. I can tell you about my failures—all of the downturns and rejections—in great and exquisite detail. My successes? I usually sum up with, “Yeah, that was nice.”
It turns out we are hard-wired to minimize the positive in our lives and focus on the negative. It’s a survival strategy that may have kept us alive when woolly mammoths roamed the earth but makes daily living in the modern world needlessly miserable.
After a couple of big “failures”/setbacks, I began looking seriously at what scientists and psychologists studying resiliency were learning and began applying some of their recommended strategies and techniques. When a close friend—also a writer—fell into a serious slump after a series of rejections (not getting paid, having projects cancelled, and being critiqued unfairly), I began to share what I learned with her. I actually wrote down the strategies so she could refer to them. It turns out that’s another aspect of the human brain—we “forget” to use the solutions we know will help us when we are overwhelmed with fear and sadness.
Those writings eventually became, The Bulletproof Writer: How to Overcome Constant Rejection to Become an Unstoppable Author. Interestingly, my writer friends and I discovered that the techniques that helped us manage rejection most effectively were the ones that seemed the most counter intuitive. For example:
1. Refuse to think positively. For years, the positive psychology movement dominated the field. However, scientists have been finding that using positive thinking as a way of moving past an emotional setback actually makes things worse. Why? Because it can prevent you from processing your negative feelings, blind you to changes you might need to make and give you a false sense of security.
I’d always suspected that was true and was excited to see that borne out in research. So instead of half-heartedly mouthing positive phrases that often contradict reality, I cultivated what psychologists call an Empowered Self Explanatory Style. Basically, it’s how you explain failure to yourself.
Quick example: You and I both can react to a rejection by saying we’re lousy writers. But if you think that’s immutable, then you’ll dis-empower yourself by saying, “There’s no point in trying to improve because writers are born not made.” But if you think it’s malleable, you can empower yourself by saying, “I can improve my writing by going to more workshops.”
2. Use counter-factual reasoning. This is hard to describe in a small space, but it’s basically a gratitude technique that many psychologists are studying because it holds so much promise. Typically, in bad times you’d try to be grateful for what have. But this is exceedingly hard to do when you’re in the middle of a rejection-based depression. In counter-factual reasoning you imagine all the good things in your life disappearing. This “shocks” you into appreciating what you have and dramatically weakens your focus on what you don’t.
3. Allow yourself to feel envy because it’s an involuntary feeling. We all know writers who are doing better than we are. Some may even be close friends, so we feel guilty and tell ourselves we “shouldn’t” be feeling jealous. Which, of course, only makes it worse because you can’t! Stop that is. It’s part of our human makeup. In Bulletproof Writer, I discuss the ways to use envy as a “change agent,” so that instead being consumed by it (or consumed by the guilt over feeling envious), you learn to redirect it in ways that support your career. The best way of doing that? Channel your jealousy towards someone who’s very much like you in terms of skill and drive. Studies show that jealousy toward writers you have a lot in common with have a much higher likelihood of motivating rather than deflating you.
Making a living as a writer is not for the faint-hearted. My hope is that the strategies in Bulletproof will give writers the tools to stay in touch with why we got into the field in the first place—because we love writing!
Michael Alvear is the author of The Bulletproof Writer: How To Overcome Constant Rejection To Become An Unstoppable Author (Woodpecker Media January 2017). LINK: http://writingforaliving.us/how-to-overcome-constant-rejection/
He’s been a frequent contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and his work has appeared in Newsweek, The Washington Post, Reader’s Digest, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Huffington Post.