rising above it all

25 Famous Women on Overcoming Rejection

“It’s a blessing, in a way.” —Yoko Ono Photo: Getty Images

Dealing with rejection is a universal experience. Anyone who dares to chase after a dream will — at some point in the journey — encounter a closed door or a glass ceiling. People’s reactions to the word no are incredibly varied: Some give up immediately and slump back to wherever they came from, while others merely cackle in its face and attempt to forge on ahead — even if it means that they’ll fall flat on their faces for the millionth time.

Nobody knows more about dealing with rejection than writers, artists, and individuals in the creative fields. We’ve culled together words from women like Sylvia Plath, Yoko Ono, and Misty Copeland on how they’ve learned to deal with doors slamming in their faces and finding the will to rise above it all.

Sylvia Plath

“What if our work isn’t good enough? We get rejections. Isn’t this the world’s telling us we shouldn’t bother to be writers? How can we know if we work now hard and develop ourselves we will be more than mediocre? Isn’t this the world’s revenge on us for sticking our neck out? We can never know until we’ve worked, written. We have no guarantee we’ll get a Writer’s Degree. Weren’t the mothers and businessmen right after all? Shouldn’t we have avoided these disquieting questions and taken steady jobs and secured a good future for the kiddies?” — The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

Cheryl Strayed

“The strangest thing to come out of Wild’s success is how often people make incorrect assumptions about me. They assume writing is easy for me and I’ll never face rejection again. But of course I will and I do. The thing I’ve learned over and over again is never, ever assume that you’re going to get something — publication, award nominations, a prize, a residency, or fellowship. And never assume you aren’t going to get it either. The writing life doesn’t move in a straight line. I’ve had successes and rejections all along the way, at every stage of my career, and I will continue to do so. Acceptances and rejections don’t define me. They’re both part of what it means to be a writer. My job is to simply keep doing the work. Like — well, you know — a motherfucker.” — Guernica Mag, June 2013

Constance Wu

“I had another interviewer ask me, ‘When do you think you’re going to get through that door?’ I was like, the problem here is you’re already thinking there’s a door I need to get through, because that door is white Hollywood. Instead of, like, ‘Oh, that door doesn’t even value me anyway. Why am I trying to get into it?’ That’s a hard thing to justify, because we’re all humans with egos and insecurities, and we all want to be accepted and loved and admired. But I have to ask myself: ‘At what cost?’” — Vulture, June 2016

Tavi Gevinson

“I listened to an interview with Julianne Moore the other day and she’s talking about all the times she spent in her twenties auditioning for roles and not getting them. That’s encouraging to me, to just know that rejection is something everyone deals with whether you’re writing or whether you’re acting, even non-creative jobs, you deal with rejection. I like listening to interviews with people who I admire who have gone through that. I do think it’s inspiring when people have had to endure something to get to where they are now.” — Hello Giggles, December 2013

Elizabeth Gilbert

“The funny thing is that rejection is not so bad, really. This is something I think men have always understood — that a glorious failure can sometimes be more life-affirming than a cautious win. This is why men are constantly asking for stuff they might not even deserve or aren’t totally qualified to handle. I don’t say this as an insult to men, either; I wish more women would do the same. Because sometimes you get a yes, and even if you weren’t prepared for that yes, you rise to the occasion. You aren’t ready, and then you are. It’s irrational, but it’s magical.” — The Huffington Post, August 2014

Mary H.K. Choi

“People who say nothing inspires them more than ‘no’ and how rejection fuels them WHAT IS THAT LIKE? Also are you lying?” — her Twitter, April 2016

Elizabeth Wurtzel

“It’s not that hard to be a lawyer. Any fool can be a lawyer. It’s really hard to be a writer. You have to be born with incredible amounts of talent that you’re just born with. Then you have to work hard. Then you have to be able to handle tons of rejection and not mind it and just keep pushing away at it. You have to show up at people’s doors. You can’t just email and text message people. You have to bang their doors down. You have to be interesting. You have to be fucking phenomenal to get a book published and then sell the book. When people think their writing career is not working out, it’s not working out because it’s so damn hard. It’s not harder now than it was 20 years ago. It’s just as hard. It was always hard.” — Longform Podcast #65, October 2013

Jessica Alba

“People just saw me as this girl in a bikini in movies kicking butt — maybe not the brightest bulb. It took three and a half years of condescending nods and pats on the back of ‘good luck’, or ‘go back to endorsing things or go do a perfume’ … [I] needed people telling me no. I needed people to not get it and look at me cross-eyed for me to really figure out exactly what I was going to do and how I was going to do it.” — Forbes’s third annual Women’s Summit, June 2015

Roxane Gay

“Rejection is the most common thing a writer can experience. When it comes to writing, rejection is the rule, not the exception. If you cannot handle rejection, don’t be a writer … As a writer, you have to believe in yourself enough to withstand rejection, to not give up when one editor or ten editors or a hundred editors tell you no. You have to find a way to make sense of the business of writing when writing can be so personal. I understand why rejection stings and why a writer’s first instinct might be to behave badly in the face of it. There is a problem, though, when you are so confident in your writing that you cannot take no for an answer.” — PANK, May 2011

Marjane Satrapi

“When you go to art school you think you are the centre of the universe, the next Pablo Picasso, you’ll come out of the art school and everyone will say, ‘Pablo where were you? We were all waiting for you.’ But nobody is waiting for you. Not only are they not waiting for you, they make you that.” She gives me the finger. “That is the way it was. They were right to reject me. I reworked the projects they rejected and they became better.” — The Guardian, March 2008

Kendall Jenner

“I don’t get nervous, but I can definitely get bummed when I’m not chosen. Sometimes I just have to realize that a designer has a vision — maybe they just had something very specific in mind when casting. I have to say things to myself like, ‘It’s not that you’re not cute — maybe they just wanted someone shorter!’ Everyone just wants different things and different vibes. I can’t take it too personally. It’s a really big thing in this industry to not take things to heart because it can be really rough on you.” — her site, February 2016

Nora Ephron

“I was a reporter at the New York Post for about three years where I had been producing feature stories. I got a call from Helen Gurley Brown. She had just started working at Cosmopolitan and needed stories written quickly, for which news reporters have a reputation. I did a crappy little piece for her on the life of a Copacabana showgirl — that was my first real freelance money. I had tried to get articles printed before, though, but they were all rejected. This was before I had even started working at the Post. Some of these were rudely rejected, I might add … One article I had submitted to Glamour was returned with a note that just about said never submit anything to us again … it will be fine if we never hear from you again. I think you could call that rude.” — Nora Ephron: The Last Interview: and Other Conversations

Yoko Ono

“I was able to go on and on and on doing what I was doing because what I was doing was rejected. So it’s a blessing, in a way — a very strange blessing. Because if what I was doing back then would have been totally accepted — you know, ‘Now, Yoko, do that one again! We love it!’ — then I would have been dead as an artist, stuck in one place. But I couldn’t get stuck in one place because people kept whipping me, so I always thought, ‘Go on, do another thing.’” — Interview, December 2013

Fran Lebowitz

“When I was really young I wrote a book of poetry which was rejected, and I lived to be thrilled by that because it was a terrible book. Sometimes, rejection is good.” — Takoma Voice, June 2011

Cara Delevingne

Rejection’s a huge thing you have to get over in acting. That was actually the worst for me because I started auditioning for movies before I started modelling and I could not deal with the rejection. When I got turned down for something I loved, it took me weeks to get over it.” — Marie Claire, May 2014

Margaret Cho

“My wisdom to share, I think, is really about not giving up — ever. And I think that’s a really important thing, that I just keep going. And all of these minor failures don’t faze me. I really just enjoy every day, and I think we just have to. You just can’t give up, no matter what … I think that we can change it by just trying to find a new way. I mean, I think rejection isn’t really a rejection, it’s just a need to redirect.” — NPR, May 2011

Jill Soloway

“The scariest thing is having continued to believe in myself in the face of rejection. I got rejected a bunch. Less than three years ago I was trying to get into the directing lab and the scriptwriting lab at Sundance, got rejected from both, hated myself, believed that I sucked. And I made my film anyway … I’m always just trying to remind myself that the self-hating messages — like I’ll wake up in the middle of the night (not anymore but I used to) and be like, don’t do this, don’t make the film, the scene’s not ready, you’re doing the thing, you’re making a mistake — those are those little middle of the night messages that I’m now recognizing that women have a lot more than men. So when I have them, I just now assign them to what it means to grow up in a patriarchal culture, to be otherized by your culture. In the same way I try to make the world safe for trans people, I’m also trying to make the world feel like women should be at home in it.” — Elle, January 2015

Ursula Le Guin

“It took me so long to get my fiction published — years and years of submitting and rejection, submitting and rejection — that I was getting a little desperate. I was beginning to wonder, Am I just writing for my attic? And I deliberately wrote a fantasy story, a genre story, to see if I could sell it. There was some impulse like that behind “April in Paris,” which was one of the first stories I sold.” — The Paris Review

Judy Blume

“For two years I received nothing but rejections. One magazine, Highlights for Children, sent a form letter with a list of possible reasons for rejection. ‘Does not win in competition with others,’ was always checked off on mine. I still can’t look at a copy of Highlights without wincing. I would go to sleep at night feeling that I’d never be published. But I’d wake up in the morning convinced I would be. Each time I sent a story or book off to a publisher, I would sit down and begin something new. I was learning more with each effort. I was determined. Determination and hard work are as important as talent. Don’t let anyone discourage you! Yes, rejection and criticism hurt. Get used to it. Even when you’re published you’ll have to contend with less than glowing reviews. There is no writer who hasn’t suffered.” — her site

Misty Copeland

“I hear stories from young dancers that I’ve mentored who have really head-on dealt with being told they can’t do this. That they should find another dancing path because ballet would be extremely difficult with brown skin. They are being told that to ‘protect’ them from getting to that point where they are going to be rejected. It’s difficult to experience that at such a young age. It’s difficult to look around and think, Why am I here? I’m the only one! I don’t fit in ... It’s such a traditional and historic art form that people are afraid to change it. They’re afraid for it to grow. But I think it has to if it’s going to last in the world we live in today. It’s hard to change someone’s ideas when they might not even really consciously know that they’re being racist, or have racist ideas, just because ballet has been this way for hundreds of years.” — The Cut, March 2014

Alison Bechdel

[NYT:] Do you think something is being lost now that queer culture is becoming more mainstream? Are gay people like everybody else now?
[AB:] We are. And there is a sadness in that. I wanted to think we were special, more highly evolved somehow. I really believed that in my youth. Obviously that’s ridiculous — we’re the same as everyone else, and it’s amazing that that is being acknowledged. But I feel wistful for the sense of being special. When gay people were rejected, there was this camaraderie and this sense of community that I don’t feel anymore. I miss that. But I wouldn’t want to go back politically. — The New York Times Magazine, May 2015

Janet Fitch

“When I sold my first book, a young-adult novel called Kicks, I had a party and I put my rejections on the walls of my living room. Including the hundreds of short story rejections I’d gotten over the years, and those from a book that never sold, as well as the book that did, they reached from the floorboards to up over my head on all four walls. I look at rejections as a badge of honor. Until you have your first hundred, you’re not even a real writer.” — Figment, July 2011

Sofia Coppola

“I would rather do something that some people really connect to and some people reject. I never want to make something just mediocre.” — The Telegraph, July 2013

Aparna Nancherla

“One proactive way to handle rejection is to take a cleansing breath & then write your Congressperson about it” — her Twitter, May 2015

Gillian Jacobs

“The life of an actor involves near-constant rejection peppered with the occasional ‘yes.’ I hear ‘no’ all the time, but it doesn’t devastate me because I don’t expect this profession to be easy. Believe me, I get bummed out, but I allow myself to grieve and move on. I watched other students who had an easy time at school really struggle with the business end of show business.” — Lenny Letter, January 2016

25 Famous Women on Overcoming Rejection