Want to take a sneak peek at the chapters in my book? Just click the tabs on the left and read the excerpts . This book mixes a sort of personal memoir of overcoming rejection with an in-depth analysis of the latest studies on building grit and resiliency. Some of the research is eye-opening and counter-intuitive but mostly, extremely helpful.
My goal is to show you how to cultivate a bulletproof consciousness so that you can survive and thrive in the publishing world. And if I fail, well, that’s what the 30 day money back guarantee is for!
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Why Resiliency Is So Hard For Writers To Build & So Necessary For Success
Publishing is one of the few industries that systematically rejects its most talented people. To understand the scale of how badly it misjudges talent you only have to glance how many times publishers rejected writers like William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Jack Kerouac, and John Le Carre. The list is endless and entirely accessible—just Google “famous authors who’ve been rejected.”
It’s difficult to fully grasp the enormity of the industry’s inability to recognize talent until you compare it to other industries. Imagine Samsung, Sony or Verizon rejecting Steve Job’s resume with a form letter.
Or Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, and Citigroup telling Warren Buffet he doesn’t have what they’re looking for.
Or Google, LinkedIn and Pinterest telling Mark Zuckerberg they see no future for him in social media.
It would never happen. Yet rejecting talented authors happens regularly in publishing. Brilliant writers like Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Ursula Le Guin have amassed so many rejection letters they could build a bonfire and keep a lot of us warm for a week.
In almost all other industries people generally rise to the level of their abilities. Gifted with numbers? You’ll get a great job in accounting. Talented in physics? You’ll land a high paying job in aerospace. Adept at design? You’ll step into a high-powered ad firm.
But publishing? Not true. Demonstrably not true. Maxwell Perkins, often described as the greatest literary editor (he edited Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe), passed on William Faulkner. According to the New York Times, novelist and literary critic Malcolm Cowley once wrote to Faulkner, ”In publishing circles your name is mud. They are all convinced your books won’t ever sell.”
Alfred A. Knopf, the house noted for its literary quality, passed on Herman Hesse. Many of the best loved novels on your bookshelf have a tortured history of rejection. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich refused J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.
Preparing For A Bulletproof Consciousness
Joseph Campbell once pointed out that entrances to some ancient Japanese temples were “guarded” by 26-foot Nio Statues carved with one hand welcoming you and one hand warning you away. Campbell theorized that it represented a way of weeding out the immature and unready while welcoming the courageous willing to test themselves for greater glory. Writing is like that. There are two Nio statues guarding the temple of publishing with an explicit message: Do Not Enter Without The Expectation Of A Painful Journey That May Or May Not End Joyfully.
The Bulletproof Consciousness does not take that warning lightly. It does not enter the temple without first understanding what is in store and preparing for the ego-threatening obstacles that guard the treasure.
As you pass the Nio Statues and enter the antechamber of publishing’s temple you’ll notice two things. The first is that it is crowded with writers just like you trying find the treasure. In fact, it’s China-crowded. So crowded you actually can’t see a path to the treasure. It looks like a hundred rock concerts just let out in Beijing. “No wonder I get so many rejections,” you think to yourself, “Look how many authors I’m up against!”
The second thing you notice is how many bullets are flying around. It’s a constant spray from all angles, hitting just about everyone. Some people collapse to the floor immediately, others stagger and look for cover. You look down and see lots of the fallen (they quit writing) but you also see some writers who go about their business and the bullets don’t bother them at all, even when they take a whole cartridge. We’ll come back to them in a minute.
The next thing you notice is a fantastic, endless view of an African savannah where white rhinos bask in watery success. Look left and you’ll see miles of white rhinos signing books with lines that wrap around the horizon. Look right and you’ll see more white rhinos driving up in their Mercedes, flying to their second homes, taping TED talks, bedding beauties, jetting to Davos, marrying royalty, talking with Terri Gross, appearing on The Daily Show and counting endless stacks of cash.
Developing A Higher Threshold For Failure
As you go deeper into the Temple’s catacombs you see a fellow-traveler who’s about to put his hand on the glass wall, the one that fires bullets at every writer’s attempt at success. You try to stop him. “Wait! That’s going to hurt!” you yell. But he ignores you and something odd happens—bullets spray out in loud bangs but they don’t hurt him. In fact, he doesn’t seem to hear them and they don’t slow him down for a second. He is completely immune to them. And because he is, he finds ridges, cracks, fissures, crevices and holes in the glass wall that were not apparent to you and mounts it with the dexterity of a seasoned rock climber.
Meet the midlister.
“Hey Mr. Midlister!” you yell. How come the bullets didn’t stop you?”
“Oh!” he exclaims. Don’t let the scary sound or the look of the bullets scare you. With the right mindset, you’ll see they’re nothing but heat-lightning—scary-looking but harmless. I haven’t felt the pain of these little buggers in a long time.”
Clearly, this has given Mr. Midlister a significant advantage. He can actually climb the wall and you can’t even get near it without the “anticipatory anxiety” of getting a bullet in the forehead. You see him climb, burrow, jump, crawl, walk, run and dive with gusto.
Apparently the wall is actually a series of dimensions and the deeper you go in, the more money, food, drink and fun there is. Mr. Midlister may not be in the savannah, but he’s clearly found a place between nowhere and the promised land. He seems happy, respected and relatively prosperous. You want some of that so you ask him how he did it.
Wired For Woe:
How Our Brain Circuitry Undermines Resiliency & What We Can Do About It
Developing a bulletproof consciousness requires us to accept the limitations imposed by our biology. And there is no greater limitation than the way our brains are wired to greet bad news.
As we discussed earlier, rejection has no organic power to hurt you. The pain it has is the pain you grant it. The solution is simple—stop granting it power—but that’s harder to do than it sounds. It’s not that you’re weak, stubborn or unwilling. It’s that you’re biologically wired to perceive rejection as a mortal threat. We even language it that way. Rejection can make you say, “It feels like something died in me,” or “I feel like I’ve been stabbed.”
To understand why so many of us overreact, let’s visit with neuropsychologist Rick Hanson and his book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. Hanson has been studying the brain for the last couple of decades. He, along with other researchers, have discovered that the brain has a built-in negative bias that gets easily “high jacked by alarm.”
Wired For Woe
Humans are about 2 million years old. As European homo sapiens we are 40,000 years old. But as humans living in the “modern world?” Probably about 5,000 years old. And that’s giving the definition of modernity a wide latitude, for it includes Antiquity, Medieval and Modern ages.
Hence the brain has been evolving for 2 million years but less than one quarter of 1% of that evolution occurred during the past 5,000 years of “Modern life.” If the brain’s timeline were condensed to a year, it would have been evolving itself for caveman danger from January 1 to December 30. It would’ve started evolving to modern life stressors on December 31.
Emotional First Aid: Managing The Pain Of Rejection
We now have an intellectual understanding of what is happening to us. Rejection stresses us because our brain’s ancient circuitry flashes, “Dingo! Dingo! Dingo!” So far, we’ve clearly proven that it’s not a wild dog coming for your baby, so what is it?
A door. A shut door. A door that is not going to open again. That is all it is and it is all that. A shut door isn’t a dingo but it can still bring up powerful emotions that you must deal with. The bulletproof consciousness doesn’t simply keep calm and carry on. It deals with emotional pain in a responsible way to process, heal and move forward.
Feel Your Pain And Then Feel It Some More.
Feelings are like tax collectors—they won’t go away no matter how long you ignore them. Eventually, they’re going to catch up with you. You can pay now when the taxes are low (a crying jag or two, a few heart-to-heart conversations, a couple of rounds on the punching bag) or later when the interest outstrips the original bill (depression, anxiety, paralysis, wretched writing).
The more you deny or bury your feelings, the more they tend to manifest in undesirable ways. Feelings were meant to be felt. Refusing to cry or express the anger, futility, pity or hopelessness you feel will mess you up far worse than the temporary discomfort of dealing with it as it happens.
Many writers try to control their emotions by trying to change the rejection itself. For example, Mrs. Writer gets a bad review. Outraged and hurt, she contacts the reviewer and reads him the riot act. Mr. Author, upon receiving a rejection of his new manuscript by a publisher who made a lot of money off his last few books, gets on the phone and tries to guilt the editor into accepting it.
Ruminations: Dealing With Rejections You Can’t Seem To Get Over
When we get a painful rejection it’s normal to process our feelings, reflect on what happened, sort things out and gain some perspective. But under particularly painful rejections, a genuine attempt at self-soothing and self-reflection can lead to rumination–repeated thoughts that perpetuate our distress. We replay the same scenes over and over again without coming to any new understanding. What starts out as a need for clarification and release ends up trapping us in emotional loops where we endlessly replay the same distressing feelings.
How Do You Know When You’re In The Throws Of Rumination?
With self-reflection you go through a short, turbulent period and slowly, insights arrive. Feelings subside. Acceptance flickers. Calm sets in. Memories of the rejection may still be painful but they don’t carry the electric charge they once did. There is a sense of carrying forward.
This stage lasts anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days (48 Hour Sulking Rule) but depending on the depth of the rejection can last longer. You know you’ve slipped into rumination when you’re constantly thinking about the rejection but the thoughts illuminate nothing. No new insights arrive. No new epiphanies. You slip further away from balance and centeredness and in fact, you’re not lowering the intensity through “processing” you are increasing it with obsessive thoughts.
Psychologists often think of rumination as “Anger inflation” – a way of fanning the flames of sadness, rage, hurt and alienation. If self-reflection throws water at the fire, rumination throws lighter fluid. It intensifies sadness and anger and makes them persist longer. It involves intense brooding that consumes huge amounts of mental energy—energy that can be stored for writing. It impairs our concentration, our motivation, our initiative and our problem-solving abilities. It takes up a substantial amount of intellectual and emotional resources. It also has the ability to affect relationships because, come on, how long can your friends and family listen to the awfulness that has befallen you?
How To Handle Critics, Criticism, and Bad Reviews
Getting a bad review feels like a stranger looked into your child’s eyes and declared it the ugliest baby he’s ever seen. It can leave you stunned, speechless and PISSED OFF.
I have seen writers practically cry when they get a bad review, even if it’s an outlier compared to all the other stellar reviews they’ve received. Are they just too emotionally delicate to handle a stranger’s opinion or is there something else going on?
Flash back to the two researchers tossing the ball to you, making you feel part of their tribe. Suddenly they stop tossing it to you and your emotions plummet–even after you’re told they were members of the heinous Ku Klux Klan.
Whether it’s a white supremacist’s ball toss or a stranger’s book review, we are wired to care what the tribe thinks of us. If the reviewer is a literary book critic he’s part of the Publishing Tribe that you’re trying to stay in or get into—a tribe that provides life-sustaining resources. If the reviewer is an ordinary book buyer, she’s part of a tribe called “My Readers”—a tribe that can help you survive by selling more books and influence the Publishing Tribe’s view of you.
If even one member of these tribes hates your work the brain automatically flashes DINGO! DINGO! DINGO! It has been programmed for eons to be hypersensitive to your standing in the tribe, lest you and your baby get thrown to the dogs.
Your Stone Age brain doesn’t look at the totality of all your reviews. It doesn’t care that 99 out of 100 reviews are good because its built-in negative bias is programmed to scan for threats not victories. It treats the positive with passing interest because it means you’re safe. It treats the negative with intense alarm because it perceives a threat. This is why logical entreaties to weigh the lopsided differences between 99 good reviews and one bad one can fall short. As Hanson stated, “Negative contaminates positive more than positive purifies negative.”
When Good Things Happen To Other Writers: Treating Poison Envy
When I first started writing one of my closest friends told me he got a six-figure book contract. I was thrilled for him, said the right words, bought him drinks, showed the right emotions. But with each smile, toast and back-slapping I died a little bit inside.
The first chance I got to be alone, I started throwing things in my apartment. It was unfair. I’d been trying for four years; he’d been trying for six months. I was totally committed to being a writer; he waffled the whole time. I took writing classes and went on writing retreats. He smoked weed and hardly touched his laptop.
As if the misery of jealousy and envy wasn’t bad enough, I also had to contend with the guilt. He’d always been a good friend and here I was, not only incapable of being happy for him but berating him (in my mind and to other people). I was prick. A total prick. A jealous, envious prick.
I can’t tell you how much it bothered me to play that small. I worried that not only would I lose a great friend but that I’d descend into bitterness and resentment. It took me a good while to work through the envy to get to a place where I was not only genuinely happy for him but for all friends and acquaintances who achieved more than I did. To understand how I was able to do it you first have to understand the nature of competition.
Managing The Biggest Critic Of All: YOU
The obstacles before us pale in comparison to the obstacles within us. In past chapters we’ve seen how a bulletproof consciousness can turn poison into medicine but here our powers will be tested for there is no more potent poison than the one coursing between our ears.
One of the confounding things about dealing with your inner critic is that it simultaneously lifts and undermines you. Your inner critic is the CEO of Quality Control. It senses when you’ve written garbage. It knows when you’ve cut corners. By holding you to a higher standard it maximizes your chances of success while protecting you from public shame and humiliation.
The problem is that our inner critic often does it with all the warmth of a serial killer. We need our inner critic. What we don’t need is for it to be so hateful.
And bi-polar. The inner critic is both a knight in shining armor that rescues us from mediocrity and a vampire that sucks on its own neck. And sometimes, just to fuck with us, the vampire dresses up in the knight’s armor, galloping in to save the day but spilling our blood in the process.
The bulletproof consciousness knows that its inner critic has a split personality and that the knight (which treats us kindly) must be fed and the vampire (which hates us) starved. We can start by understanding that psychologists see self-criticism as a “safety behavior,” a badly formulated attempt to protect ourselves from painful situations, memories and emotions. All that self-monitoring, self-blaming and self-criticism you’re doing is actually serving an important function: Keeping you safe from physical or emotional harm.
The Folly Of Trying To Learn From Your Failures
What could be wrong with trying to make sense of your failures and rejections? If you know why something happened or didn’t happen you can build strategies around it to either repeat the success or avoid the failure. Cognitive psychologists and communication theorists call it “Sense making,” and they see it as an integral part of learning. But as you’ll soon see, it does not apply to writers.
Sense making is valuable in large organizations where ideas and data are enthusiastically shared with others in an effort solve problems, disseminate information, build consensus and chart a way forward. But we writers don’t get empirical data from publishers or work in a sharing culture with forthcoming people. Sense making offers relief to organizations but rarely to individuals. So, yes, Simon & Schuster gets a lot out of sense making from their failures but you and I won’t. Indeed, studies of individual (as opposed to organizational) sense making shows it isn’t just fruitless but harmful because it creates so much anxiety and frustration.
Let’s say you’re a fairly accomplished author with several books under her belt. But your last couple of books didn’t do so well, and you editor seems a bit soured by that. She rejects your new manuscript with a mystifying opacity. Should you go on a sense making mission? Certainly, you should try to get more details out of her but in the end it won’t help much. Here’s why: All you’ll get out of it is her opinion, which may or may not be correct.
Publishing isn’t an industry like engineering where hard truths eat soft opinions without so much as a resulting burp. If your new air conditioner design gets rejected because you broke the laws of ventilation that’s fixable. But in writing? Please. There are no truths, only opinions. Informed opinions to be sure, but opinions nonetheless. For example, this is what Stephen King found out when he tried to make sense of early rejection letters for Carrie: Some editors thought it wasn’t scary enough!
At It For Years With Little To Show For It?
Dealing With Chronic Frustration
Success has eluded you after years of trying. You work hard, produce good work and zip, zilch, nada. Well maybe not nada but you’re nowhere near where you thought you would or should be. Years of frustration and disappointment have dug tunnels in your fortitude, leaving quarries in your outlook.
Maybe you’re a newbie who can’t break in after a year of trying. Or a midlister who’s career stalled after years of accomplishments. Or a best seller who can’t replicate the success of earlier books and fears a long slide toward irrelevance. You struggle against cynicism and despair. You dismiss new ideas (“I already tried that!”), people who try to help (“I already tried that!”), and new directions (“I already tried that!”).
You’re caught in a vicious circle of frustration, resentment, and despair. This goes beyond dealing with any individual rejection; it’s now a state of mind that you’re dealing with, a narrative that says you could star in The Biggest Loser, Author Edition.
How do you get out of this vicious circle? First, by reminding yourself that publishing is unlike any other industry. There is no justice. There is no peace. There is no fairness. As Elizabeth Gilbert writes in Big Magic:
“The Patron goddess of creative success can sometimes seem like a rich, capricious old lady who lives in a giant mansion on a distant hill and who makes really weird decisions about who gets her fortune. She sometimes rewards charlatans and ignores the gifted. She cuts people out of her will who loyally served her for their entire lives, and then gives a Mercedes to that cute boy who cut her lawn once. She changes her mind about things. We try to divine her motives, but they remain occult. She is never obliged to explain herself to us.”
A Counter-Intuitive Approach To Building Resiliency
Gratitude, the art of appreciating what you have rather than lamenting what you don’t, is an important part of the bulletproof consciousness. When it works it’s an empowering way to take your mind off rejection.
When it works.
Personally, I have a big problem with gratitude and it’s probably the same one you’ve got: It feels great for about a minute and then you’re right back where you started. Gratitude is easy to practice when things are going well; almost impossible when they’re not. In fact, when things are not going well, it’s as useless as a bottle of booze at a Mormon wedding.
I’ve always felt like I had my nose pressed against the window, witnessing all the shiny, happy Oprah-infused people practicing gratitude every day, wondering why it seemed to work for everyone but me. Then I discovered a lot of fellow noses pressed against that window. And some of those noses belonged to academic researchers wondering why so many studies fail to show positive effects to practicing gratitude.
You read that right. Many studies on gratitude show it is ineffective in lifting mood. In a study looking at “gratitude tests” published in the Journal Of Personality & Social Psychology researchers concluded that the scientific evidence for the gratitude hypothesis is mixed and inconsistent. “The mixed bag of results,” the paper said, “Suggests that the effects of thinking about positive life events are not well understood.”
Given that the research is inconclusive, is there a place for gratitude in the bulletproof consciousness? Yes, if we practice it in a radically different way than we’re used to. First, let’s understand why…
Maintaining A Bulletproof Future
Early in my writing career I realized processing rejection was just as important as producing manuscripts. I had a sense of clarity that my writer friends—the ones with more talent, the ones felled by constant rejection—did not. We all went to writing retreats to hone our craft, but I also went to research libraries to hone my mind. I had an intuitive sense that talent alone was not the only factor to success.
Do you know what taught me that? Tennis.
I used to play competitively and as a kid I noticed something odd: The most talented players didn’t always win. I particularly remember one guy, a friend, who’d kick my butt in practice and then lose to me in a tournament. Why? Because he mentally collapsed when a lesser player like me won a few games. He wasn’t mentally tough. He wasn’t resilient. He couldn’t get over his setbacks.
This taught me a valuable lesson that served me in my writing career: Talent isn’t enough. I needed a lot more than a literary skill set to succeed as a writer. I needed to cultivate both talent and resiliency.
I am an anomaly in writing. I’m one of the 1,400 out of 250,000 authors in the U.S. who make a good living as a writer. If you read my body of work there is no way you would conclude I swim in the deep end of the talent pool. I am at best, slightly above average. I’m a living, walking example of Dean Simonton’s conclusion—that once you meet a minimum level of talent, success goes to the person with the highest threshold for failure. In other words, grit. Resiliency. Resolve. The kind you get by developing a coping strategy that turns poison into medicine.