The Illusion of Rejection

Has your work ever been rejected?

Perhaps you’re a creative who has had work turned down for an exhibition. Or you’re in business and have lost out on a big contract. Or your dream job was handed to another candidate.

Whatever form it takes, rejection can be hard to bear. It can feel like confirmation that you’re doing the wrong thing, that you don’t belong or that actually, you just aren’t very good. And every time it happens, it feels that little bit worse, nibbling away at your confidence and sowing the seeds of self-doubt.

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But rejection is an illusion. Along with its opposite, acceptance, it creates the impression of a binary world, when in actual fact no such thing exists. Anyone who has had to choose between two equally good, competing candidates will know this. Which is to say, all of us. The ‘winner’ is elevated to a superior position relative to the ‘loser’ out of all proportion to reality. All because only one could be chosen.

It is often the case that you will never find out the ‘real’ reasons for your rejection or how close you came. At times like that it’s useful to keep in mind that you’re in esteemed company (just do a search for ‘famous failures’ to regain some perspective).

Such thoughts were in our minds when we recently came a close-run second in the race to win a major project. In our world, there are no prizes for runners-up. There is only win or no-win and, when you’ve put in the work, rejection can be harsh.

This particular project was our kind of project. It involved both the restoration of a significant heritage building as well as the creation of new, contemporary structures alongside. It was a large Victorian country house, the work of the pre-eminent architect of his day, Edward Blore, designer of the later phases of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, amongst many others. We would have drawn on our recent experience of working with the Grade I listed estate properties at Mapperton in Dorset and at Peckforton in Cheshire. 

We were to restore the extensive ranges of servant quarters, the stable courtyard, the ice house, gazebo and garden walls. A new swimming pool and leisure complex was planned in the kitchen garden, and the later, inappropriate buildings in the enormous walled garden were to be removed and replaced with four highly contemporary dwellings.

This was definitely our project.

We were on an invited list of three architects and, given the limited competition, it felt worthwhile to go the extra mile to illustrate our experience, expertise and ideas. In fact, we were already designing the new buildings as we were putting together the material for the submission. Yes, this was definitely our project.

We didn’t win it.

But on learning of our rejection, we chose to celebrate. Why?

Because we regarded the whole process as confirmation that we’re on the right track. Getting on to the invited list of three and making the decision difficult for the client demonstrated that we are a player in the game. Being in there, being able to compete should always be celebrated, regardless of the final outcome.


"It is not the critic who counts…..The credit goes to the man in the arena”.

- ‘Citizen in a Republic’ speech, Theodore Roosevelt


And you too who are also in the arena should remember that, although it may seem like it at the time, rejection is not the end of matters. It should neither trigger such despair that you give up, nor such complacency that you think there is nothing to learn from the experience. Celebrate where you’ve got to, build on it, and keep going.


"This is not to say that you aren’t entitled to feel shitty for a few hours or a few days……..So mope. Eat macaroni and cheese while watching reality TV shows. Take long, hot showers and wandering walks………..and then, get back on the horse."

- ‘Remember this the next time you are rejected’, Courtney E. Martin