Resilience: Bouncing Back From Adversity and Failure

Call it a failure, screw-up, mistake or something else. We all do it, and sometimes it’s big. The question is, What do we do next? How do we recover? Sometimes, we wonder if we can recover at all. For me, it’s a question of resilience: the ability to come back from adversity and failure. Learning to do that is critically important to your career and your future.

So what should we do after a big failure? Here are my suggestions:

1. Don’t overthink it—especially if it’s rejection. Sometimes, we wallow in our failure or rejection in an effort to understand it. But often, it’s just a matter of timing, chemistry or circumstance. Actors see this all the time in auditions. Their performance might be brilliant, but the producer was looking for a blonde, a deeper voice, or a taller person. More often than you think, rejection has nothing to do with your performance or lack thereof.

2. Don’t take it personally. I know that’s easier said than done because, in my 20s, I took criticism really hard. But over the years I learned that in most cases it’s not about me; it’s about the project, idea or job. After a failure, learn to separate criticism of the project from criticism of you. It will keep you from jumping out a window, and keep you in the game. And never forget, they could be right and you might actually learn something from the experience. Poet Carl Sandburg said, “I sent [poems] to two editors who rejected them right off. I read those letters of rejection years later, and I agreed with those editors.”

3. Find objective advice. Occasionally, the person who rejected your idea or project is an idiot. Find another experienced person you trust and run it by them. It’s always good to have a bigger perspective on the potential reasons for rejection.

4. At the moment of failure or rejection, keep a cool head and ask for constructive criticism. It’s tough to keep your emotions from running wild, but if possible, keep calm and politely ask for reasons. If the person is mature, they’ll be happy to offer a teaching moment, and you could end up in a much better position. James Lee Burke said, “There’s nothing like rejection to make you do an inventory of yourself.”

5. Finally, don’t let failures derail your dream. Nothing is perfect, no idea is sacred, and we’re all human. Rejection and failure happen. Understand that, keep tweaking your idea or project, and most of all, keep moving forward. Maybe the best rejection quote is from actor Sylvester Stallone: “I take rejection as someone blowing a bugle in my ear to wake me up and get going, rather than retreat.”

Speaking of failure, I often get questions about having a day job. Some think it’s important to focus on your dream, even if you have to struggle to survive. Others believe a day job keeps you out of the gutter and sane. Whichever direction you prefer, here’s a short list of a few pretty brilliant creatives who had day jobs:

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut managed a Saab dealership.
Composer Philip Glass was a plumber and furniture mover and drove a taxi.
Poet T.S. Eliot was a banker.
Writer Toni Morrison was a magazine editor and mom.
William Faulkner worked as a postmaster at the University of Mississippi.
Franz Kafka was a bureaucrat.
Anthony Trollope was a postal surveyor, and it didn’t get in the way of him writing thousands and thousands of pages of fiction.
Charlotte Brontë was a governess. Lucky for us, her resentments surfaced in books like Jane Eyre.

One of my favorite stories is William Chatterton Dix, who was born in Bristol, England, on June 14, 1837. He became the manager of a marine insurance company in Glasgow, Scotland, and although this was his vocation until the end of his life, Dix was also a hymn writer. Over the course of his life, he wrote 40 hymns. A brilliant writer, he wrote hymns that people would be singing almost 200 years later, all while spending his days managing an insurance agency.

And never forget Ken Robinson’s brilliant quote: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

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This article originally appeared on and is reposted here by permission.

Phil Cooke
Phil Cooke

Phil Cooke is a filmmaker, media consultant and founder of Cooke Media Group in Los Angeles, California. His latest book is Ideas on a Deadline: How to Be Creative When the Clock is Ticking. Find out more at