How to stay sane. Part 2 – coping with rejection

Frankly I’m not feeling man enough this morning to find exactly where in the interminable Being and Nothingness Jean-Paul Sartre starts talking about waiters, but when he does things get interesting and surprisingly practical.

Picture yourself smoking cigarettes in a Parisian cafe, sitting opposite Sartre. Looking at a miserable, surly waiter Sartre observes that the waiter’s problem is that he has become his job. If you asked the waiter what he was, he’d say ‘I am a waiter’. If you criticised his performance as a waiter he would be cut to the quick. (Sartre calls this living in ‘bad faith’.)

There is another waiter, however, who is full of banter and good cheer. His happiness, according to Sartre, is because he remembers that his job as a waiter is the result of his own choice. He has chosen that very morning to get up and come to work. If you asked him what he was, he’d say ‘I am a person, who happens to have chosen to work as a waiter’.

The cheerful waiter sees himself as a person, not as a waiter. He makes sure he separates what he does for a living from who he is as a person. (Sartre calls this living ‘authentically’.)

The most helpful thing the idea of living authentically has done for me is to enable me to cope with rejection.

The worst way to receive a rejection, and believe me I have been there, is to see it is a rejection of you and all that you stand for. Experiencing rejection this way is unbelievably painful, and can provoke bouts of rage, self-loathing or at the very least a good deal of sulking.

Much better, and far saner, is the Sartre way. To accomplish it, you have to separate yourself from your work.

Remember too that the rejection is usually made by a single fallible person with specific tastes. The sane way to see the rejection is therefore that one of your pieces, written last May, has been rejected by one person. It is NOT a rejection of you, merely of a thing you once made.

Having your work rejected is never fun, but this perspective has certainly helped me keep my sanity.

As a final observation, I remember a specific poem that had been roundly rejected by everyone I sent it to. I kept it in my drawer as I thought it was pretty good. Ten years later the same poem was snapped up by the first person I sent it to at a top magazine. Sometimes you have to accept that the world is not yet ready for the thing you have made, which is why you should think twice before throwing your work away.

Below Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir, thinking about waiters.


About Peter Kenny

I lead a double life. Identity #1. A writer of poems, plays, libretti, prose, journalism and so on. Identity #2: A marketing outlier, working with London creative agencies and my own clients as a copywriter and creative consultant.
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