Student Fears - A blog post series

SF4: Fear of Rejection

July 14, 2016 - 17 minutes read

This post is part of a series on student fears, addressing real concerns from real illustration and design students. Feel free to browse other posts in the series.


That’s a scary word. I would say it’s about 30% why I haven’t written a post in a while. The other 70% being that I’ve been either super busy and not requiring a dose of rejection or that I’ve needed a break from work altogether.

I was specifically requested to write about this topic a couple of months ago by a good friend. At the same time I was also written by another friend about this new Student Fears series, and I suppose “rejected” in a sense that made me feel like not writing for a while at all. That’s OK, I was busy anyways, and I needed a little sabbatical from writing to recharge. Sometimes, when it comes to rejection, you just need to take a break, look at something else for a while, and come back with a fresh head, which is what I’m doing now.

What is rejection?

Just so we’re all clear:
The dictionary cites rejection as “the dismissing or refusing of a proposal, idea, etc.”, though I think that for most of us creative types that dismissal doesn’t even come with a response. It may be a job application, a submission to an RFP, or even an email to a colleague or old client… and it just goes unanswered. Man, those are the worst. I’ll touch on that kind of rejection, as well as the type where the person does answer you but they just don’t like your idea, pitch, concept, direction, etc..

The lack of response

I send out emails to companies I want to work with all the time, both in my freelance through Monkeyslunch and at Post+Beam, the agency I work at. 90% of them never get replies, 8% of them reply with usually polite no-thank-yous, and 2% successfully lead to something.

What do I do with the 90% that don’t answer?

What can I do? The reason they aren’t replying could be anything. An email could have been caught by spam filters, and a direct mail may have gone out with the spam mail too or just never been opened. If it’s a company I really want to work with, I will usually wait a week or so and then I follow-up over social media and a second email. If I were really desperate I may actually call. You know I really like you if I’ll talk on the phone with you.

I try to switch up my approach for each potential client. It’s important to know your audience. I’m not going to talk to an oil and gas representative the same way I’m going to talk to a children’s toy marketing rep or a luxury swimwear client. Sometimes I’ll hit a good stride and find something that works where people are answering for a while, but I always find it best to keep things organic and evolving. If you make your outreach too much like a form letter that you’re filling in the blanks for eventually it loses life and enthusiasm, and you should have enthusiasm for the project you work on and the people you work with.

Keep trying if it’s important to you.
Try different things. Switch up your tactics.
Try different language.
Try different contact methods entirely. Email, Social media, phone, in person.
Don’t take it personally if they don’t reply. Move on.

You do get a reply, they just aren’t interested

If you are getting replies and people just aren’t interested, that’s a better thing. When this happens to me I can at least ask why they aren’t interested. Is it that they aren’t seeking X, Y and Z services, or is it my own personal portfolio, my approach, or anything else I could improve on?

Recently we had someone email our Calgary office at Post+Beam trying to market their SEO services. Generally a lot of people get a ton of SEO spam offers daily, as do we, and we just ignored it. A week later, they replied to their own email, with the original message at the bottom, and told us in a cheeky (but polite and cute) way that we were missing out, but also asked if we could let them know why we didn’t reply or why we didn’t need their services.

I thought this was great! I replied and let them know that we do work in the space they were trying to sell us, and if we did need help and had to outsource something we already had a list of contractors we work with. It was nothing personal, and we wish them all the best. Short, simple, honest, and nothing they should take personally. If I didn’t receive a ton of SEO spam to begin with, I would have replied to them with the same answer right away. And that’s the thing, I didn’t reply at first because I thought it was an automated trash message. What if some of the messages you send out catch people in a similar way?

Ask people why they aren’t interested
Ask what you could do to get their interest
Ask if there’s anything you could improve on
Ask if there are other services you offer that could help
Ask if they’ll think of you for when they do need something
Be polite, don’t burn bridges, they may think of you later
Thank them for their time.

Applying for a full-time job and getting nowhere

This is the worst. If you’ve never had to worry about this, then you suck. Not having a job at all and trying to find one is one of the most desperate feelings. I feel for you.

A couple of close friends are looking for work now and one incredibly useful thing they’ve done is sending myself and a couple others some of their job applications, cover letters, resume, portfolio, and so on. We are able to review these and let them know if there is anything we notice. It’s a high-stress time, and sometimes when you’re under a lot of stress you miss silly things. I’ve caught funny spelling mistakes, noticed full chunks of work experience missing that would have been applicable to the job they were applying for, or helped them revise other portions of their application package.

I cannot stress enough that if you have friends already in the industry you are applying to, especially those in similar jobs to the one you want, get them to check everything. Ask them if they would hire you, what they would change, what you should add or remove from your portfolio or resume. One thing I usually notice in people’s cover letters is that they’re really form-letter sounding, really unoriginal, and don’t sound like the person writing them at all.

Ask someone to review your application package
Are there things you could add/remove?
Did you run spell check?
Is there anything you’re forgetting?
Does the tone you’re writing in match the tone of the company?
Are you a good fit?

Don’t take it personally

If you are a freelancer, or otherwise in a position where you have to pitch a lot, I cannot stress enough that you not take it personally.

Think about it. If you’re in this position, what place would likely anyone else going for the same opportunities be in? The same one. And only one of you can get the job.

Last year when I was teaching at the local art college I was also on a committee steering one of the main graphic programs at another institution and met with the students there regularly for portfolio reviews. When we were looking for short contract help and an intern later at the end of that year we received applications galore. It was both awesome and depressing. We had more than a handful of amazing applicants but we could only accept one for each position. Despite the other people being great workers with strong portfolios we had to turn 99% of them down.

If someone insults you

This takes the cake as one of the worst forms of rejection, by far.

Sadly, this happened to me on one of my first freelance jobs I ever took. It was a friend’s uncle, and despite a careful contract, much discussion, it ended with me red in the face. After a lot of careful discussion, I explained that thumbnails for an illustration will be far from finished level quality, but showed examples of what finished work could potentially look like. They seemed great with this. Until we actually got to that thumbnail stage. He told me I couldn’t draw, that his toddler nieces and nephews could do better, that he in fact could do better, and that he would. That my thumbnails made him so confident in his own drawing skills that he would be illustrating the project himself.

Wow. Pure effing wow.

I told him that like we discussed thumbnails are just quick drawings that lay out a piece, getting fundamental composition, sometimes colours, and other things down. That they were nowhere near finished quality, nor in any way indicative of the finished product.

I started to second guess myself. Should I have put more finish on thumbnails? Poured my soul into 20 tiny drawings, of which 19 or even 20 of which would be tossed out anyways? Even though every instructor working in the industry that I bounced things off told me not to do this?


Hell freaking no.

It dawned on me. I learned an incredibly valuable lesson then, I’m glad it happened to me so early on, and it’s one that I reiterate constantly to people that ask me for advice.

Do not work for or with dicks. Period.

If a job or client subjects your integrity, moral and ethical fortitude, and other personal character make-up to test, say no. Say goodbye. Say good riddance. If I had ended up working with that client further I would have hated it. When I saw his own illustration come out of the project a couple months later I couldn’t help but laugh, as I’m sure most people that saw it did. If that’s what he thought was good work, and that’s how he treated people, the money was not worth it.

Do not compromise your integrity
Do not work with/for dicks
Know when to say the opportunity isn’t really for you

The try us again later reply

This is one of the most underrated replies ever. If you get a reply where someone sounds like they legitimately like your work but just don’t have any time/money/work for you right now, make a reminder for 3-6 months later down the road in your calendar to contact them again. It may sound like they’re blowing you off, but I’ve found that 9/10 times people are being honest when I get this reply and it’s led to work down the road.

Are you ready?

The last thing I might say about rejection is to ask yourself if you’re truly ready for what you’re chasing. There’s been a few times now that I’ve looked back on opportunities I didn’t get and realize now that my skills were not up to snuff. I needed practice and discipline. Either that, or my personality just wasn’t a match for the place.

Again, I’d recommend getting friends already in the industry to review what you plan on submitting to an application, pitch or RFP. You can also post in numerous forums online for people to help you. I’ve had great luck int he past on the forums, an old private forum I used to frequent with a bunch of illustrators, Twitter, and other places online. As long as you’re polite and straight forward in what kind of feedback you’re looking for people are usually pretty keen to help. There will always be trolls, just ignore them if you can.

Ask a friend
Post online, ask for feedback
Compare your work to the work of others who already work where you’re applying
Always, ALWAYS keep improving

Lastly, and most importantly:

Don’t give up if it’s important to you. Find a way to make it happen. Seek improvement, seek feedback, and fill your belly with fire until it ignites an inferno around you and the masses can’t help but shower you with attention!

This post is part of a series on student fears, addressing real concerns from real illustration and design students. Feel free to browse other posts in the series. For more information on how the series came about, see the first post, here.

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