Do you believe that good writers are born inherently talented? Or do you think that good writers are made and molded overtime?
How you answer this question doesn’t just affect your perspective of writers. It also impacts how you deal with that unavoidable bane of any writer’s existence: Rejection.
To understand why, let’s talk about rejection first. Rejection is an inescapable part of being a writer. Sure, you could just write your stories and hide them in a drawer never to be seen again—this is what J. D. Salinger did after his hit Catcher in the Rye left a bad taste in his mouth—but most writers are not content with this option. We write not just because we want to get the story down but because we want to share it with others (and let’s face it, some of us want to make some money while we do it). But sharing our writing inevitably opens us up to rejection. A lot of it.
Rejection stings, no matter where you are in your writing career. But it certainly stings more when you are just starting out as a writer. This is because novice writers are more likely to interpret rejection as a sign that they don’t have the skills and talent necessary to be successful at their craft. So it isn’t the rejection per say that hurts so bad. Rather it is our interpretation of the rejection. If a writer sees it as a sign that they are unskilled, it hurts like a stab to the heart.
Now, back to the opening question. The debate over whether good writers are born or made has raged for centuries, with nearly every literary figure weighing in on the issue. Jack Kerouac stated in his 1962 article entitled Are Writers Born or Made? that “Five thousand university-trained writers could put their hand to a day in June in Dublin in 1904, or one night’s dreams, and never do with it what [James] Joyce did with it: He was simply born to do it.” On the other hand, Ralph Waldo Emerson stated, “Every artist was first an amateur.”
Now if you tend to side with Keroauc and think great writers are born, you have what psychologists call a fixed mindset. You tend to assume that things like intelligence, athletic ability, and yes, writing talent, are fixed qualities that get hardwired into the brain at the factory. People are either born with an ability or they aren’t, and there isn’t much they can do to change it. From this perspective, success in writing should come fairly easily. If you have to work hard to succeed, then you probably aren’t that talented and should seek out another career path.
However, if you side with Emerson and think great writers are made through diligent effort and practice, you have a growth mindset. You see talent as something that is constantly being programmed and updated in the brain. As a result, abilities are malleable and can be improved upon. From this perspective, success in writing never comes easy and effort is always required.
So, which mindset is better?
If we take a look at the scientific literature on this topic, we see that tons of studies confirm people with a growth mindset are better able to cope with failure and rejection. This is because people with a fixed mindset interpret failure as a signal that they just don’t have the talent and skills necessary to be successful (and they never will). As a result, when fixed writers experience rejection, they become paralyzed by the failure and often give up.
People with a growth mindset interpret failure in a completely different way. To them, failure signals that they didn’t put in enough effort. So when growth writers experience rejection, instead of folding, they double down. They work even harder, which in turn increases their chances of future success. Growth writers see rejection and failure as not only a necessary part of the journey but a beneficial one. To them, rejection is the fire they use to forge their writing skills into hardened steel.
Because people with a growth mindset are less likely to give up after failure, they tend to be more successful. That’s good news if you already have a growth mindset; bad news if you don’t. But here’s some good news for everyone. Research shows you can change your mindset. Contrary to popular belief (and contrary to what those with a fixed mindset believe), the brain is constantly rewiring itself by shutting down defunct pathways and adding new ones (the technical term for this malleable quality is “neuroplasticity”). So according to brain science, we can all improve our skills just as long as we are willing to put in the work.
So let’s review. If you want to stop being paralyzed by rejection, it helps to adopt a growth mindset. But how? Lucky for you, I have a few scientifically-backed suggestions.
1. Become Mindful of Your Self-Talk and Argue Back
The first step in addressing any problem is identifying it. So the first thing you need to do to change your mindset is to identify when you are slipping into a fixed mentality. For example, a middle-aged writer (such as myself) might get a rejection for the umpteenth time and think, “Maybe I’m too old to start a writing career.” But if I remind myself that this is my fixed mindset talking, I could argue back by stating, “Then again, you’re never too old to learn a new skill,” or “Lots of successful writers started their career at my age or even later.”
2. Focus on the Process, Not the Outcome
I am the first to admit that when I get rejected, I just want to throw my hands up and say, “I just wasted all of that time for nothing. What’s the point!” But then I remind myself that “failure” is just another word for “learning.” Even though the outcome wasn’t what I wanted, I still benefited from the process. Author Kristin Hannah summarized this principle best when she said, “it doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to sell your first book or your 50th book, or you’re trying to redefine your career, or you’re trying to reinvent what it is you do, it’s always going to be difficult. There are always going to be naysayers, and it’s always going to be easier to either give up or follow the path of least resistance or write what appears to be the easy answer for success at that moment. Those skills that you develop as an unpublished writer—your discipline, your dedication—I think all of that holds you in really good stead as you continue forward and transition from a beginning writer to a working writer to a career novelist.” So remember this: every single thing you do helps you build your writing career, regardless of whether it results in a publication.
Constructive criticism (which is rare these days) helps you identify aspects of your writing that need improvement. But even a form-letter rejection with little feedback can help you hone your coping skills and thicken your skin. This means that someday in the future when you finally do break in, you’ll be bringing with you an arsenal of skills to help you navigate your new writing career.
3. Discover the Power of Yet
To help students adopt a growth mindset, a high school in Chicago made a radical move. They did away with failure in their grading system. When a student didn’t pass a class, instead of an F they received a Not Yet. So the next time your work is rejected, don’t interpret it as evidence that you are not a skilled writer. Instead, remind yourself that what it really means is you are not a skilled writer yet. Notice how just the addition of that one word changes the meaning and conveys a sense of hope.
4. Expand Your Mind
Just learning that your brain can change is enough to rewire your mindset. One study found that teaching children about the brain’s malleable quality led them to adopt a growth mindset in school, boosted their motivation, and made them more resilient to failure. You can do the same thing by googling the term neuroplasticity. Or better yet, check out the TED Talk by my fellow colleague and growth mindset expert, Carol Dweck. And you can also look for evidence of neuroplasticity in your own life by reflecting on a skill or hobby that you once were not very good at and now are.
5. Focus on the Internal Reasons Why You Write
People with a fixed mindset hunger for others’ approval because that’s the only way they can validate their talent. They want to prove their talent, not improve it. But if the main reason for writing is to get others’ approval (or to become rich, which also requires others’ approval), you are setting yourself up for a world of hurt. So when the inevitable sting of rejection strikes, remind yourself that you write, first and foremost, because you are compelled to do it. A true writer writes, regardless of whether they get approval for it.
6. Praise Others for their Effort
In addition to changing your own mindset, consider paying it forward and changing the mindset of those around you. When a child brings home straight A’s and their parents say, “Wow, you must be a genius,” they are unknowingly encouraging their child to adopt a fixed mindset. Instead, if the parents were to say, “Wow, you must have worked really hard in your classes,” they would be encouraging a growth mindset. Research shows that praising children for their effort (not their inherent talent) helps them cope with failure and improves their performance. So the next time you praise someone for their success—be it a child or adult—highlight their effort, not their talent.
Adopting a growth mindset takes practice. But if you follow these tips, you can release yourself from the fear of criticism and rejection. Now that doesn’t mean that the next rejection you receive won’t hurt—even highly successful writers still get irked when they get a bad review—but it does mean that the rejection will probably hurt less. And more importantly, it means that the rejection won’t serve as a roadblock to your success.
Remember that you are not limited by what you can do. You are only limited by what you think you can do (or can’t do). It is your mindset that truly matters.
This article initially appeared in Hinnom Magazine 008