The Impossibly Great Power of Rejections

I’m going to tell you a story of something pretty extraordinary that happened in one of the most boring places. It takes place in a pottery class.

On the first day of class, the teacher split the students into two groups. All the students in Group A were told to focus on quality. At the end of the course they would be graded entirely on the final clay pot they made, and it had to be a really good one.

Meanwhile all the students in the other half of the class, Group B were told they would be graded on how much pottery they made. The teacher announced that she was going to bring in her bathroom scale and just weigh all the ceramics from each person in Group B. The more stuff you made, the higher your grade was. So all this group needed to do to get a good grade was make a lot of stuff out of clay.

In a nutshell, Group A was instructed to focus on quality, while Group B was instructed to focus on quantity.

So throughout the entire course, Group A is really sweating the details and trying super hard to make the perfect pot or vase or whatever it is you make in ceramics class. Meanwhile, Group B is just chugging away and making a ton of stuff. They’re not paying attention to whether it’s really that good or bad or whatever, they’re just churning this stuff out left and right because they know the more they do, the better their grade will be.

So at the end of the semester the teacher goes to grade all the students’ work. And she notices something really strange. She realizes that the group that produced better pottery was actually Group B: the group that wasn’t thinking about quality at all. And their work wasn’t just a little bit better, they’re like, a lot better than the perfectionists in Group A. It turns out the group that was making a ton of work and just throwing huge amounts of clay at the wheel every day was actually racking up valuable practice. And meanwhile, the other group that was focusing on getting every little aspect perfect ended up made a lot less work and consequently they weren’t nearly as good at it.

The lesson here is that if you’re trying to get good at something, and especially if you’re doing creative work, to get really good at it you have to practice, even if the results don’t seem that impressive at first.

One of the greatest athletes of all time, Wayne Gretzky, famously said that “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.

And he would know too: Gretzky broke all kinds of scoring records during his years as a professional hockey player. What he meant was that the more practice you do, the more experience you accumulate and the more chances you take, the more skillful you become. And the more openings you give yourself to accomplish stuff.

In his memoir Stephen King says he writes 2,000 words a day. That’s a lot of proverbial clay that he’s throwing at the wheel.

Maybe this all sounds really obvious: the more you practice something, the better you get. But it’s not just practice, it’s also putting yourself out there and being willing to fail too.

Similarly, the writer Kim Liao published a wonderful essay called “Why you should aim for 100 rejections a year.” In her piece, she writes that the more work you do and the more opportunities you give people to appreciate your work, the better your chances are at success. She says that one year she got rejected 43 times from different publications she submitted to. But along the way she also started racking up acceptances too. But she wouldn’t have gotten those if she had just quit writing after getting rejected several times in a row. Instead, she kept writing and kept submitting and it paid off.

Everybody who’s doing creative work of any kind can take a lesson from this.

Kim’s goal of collecting 100 rejections is great although it sounds a little negative. So here’s another way to think about it. Instead of trying to giveyourself 100 Nos, try to give other people 100 chances to say yes to you and your work, whatever you’re doing.

My name is Arlen Parsa, and the goal I set for myself this year was to make 12 videos — one each month. You can subscribe to this YouTube channel to watch my next video.

P.S. — The pottery store is taken from this book.

Check out my other videos this year.