Building a freelance career has several stages, all them gilded with the excitement of new success and tempered with a degree of pain. Rejection is my most challenging burden.
In the early phases of the transition from employee to self-employee you have two main pressures that deprive you of a good nights sleep. Learning the myriad of skills that go with being a sole trader, plus actually going out and finding some customers so you can prove to the tax office that you are a business instead of an eccentric hobbyist. The tax man is not known for his sentimentality.
When I decided to add freelance travel journalism to my career goals I put myself on a path to almost daily rejection. I'd compose emails to introduce myself, pitch an idea for a story and try to prove my abilities. All in the shortest possible paragraphs because editors never have enough time to read anything. If I was lucky I'd get a "No thanks". Mostly I'd get silence.
Prior success with an editor was no guarantee of future success either, especially at a phase when you're still learning the art of writing and making mistake along the way. Deep down I'm a natural photographer and a stubborn writer, and were it not for my package of images with words I wouldn't have got this far. One editor to whom I owe much was confessed to me, "I only persevered with your writing because the photos were so good."
Over the years I did manage to pick up a few slots with magazines and newspapers, enough to keep hope alive and recommit myself to further rounds of rejection. I'm one of those people who hates the telephone, so the evolution of email culture has at least made the task of making myself feel miserable a little easier. I would store up my confidence in little jars and when I had enough mojo to tackle knocking on a few inboxes I'd send off my best and brightest ideas.
And then wait. And then wait some more. For the next few days I would check my spam filter in case an urgent reply was mistakenly assessed to be an invitation from Russian dating sites. And as I waited my confidence would spiral until my esteem resembled the dregs of coffee grind at the bottom of an empty cup.
The most hideous of rejections happened when I organised to meet an editor in Sydney, flying up from Melbourne and paying for a couple of hotels nights. This chap had taken over from a former commissioning editor who liked my work, but the new guy had never dealt with freelancers in any capacity before. I waited downstairs for over an hour, until some poor girl from the front desk came and told me that he wouldn't make it today and said, "He suggests you try some other time."
She hated him for making her handle the dirty work, you could see it in her face. I didn't like him much for it either.
It's difficult for anyone else to imagine how low I felt that day, how it stained my permanent memory of the city itself. It seems I wasn't worthy of enough of a quick hello or a personal apology for cancelling. I lost pretty much all respect for that editor, but have been driven to ensure that I never treat anyone that poorly myself.
The truth is that I haven't the ticker for rejection. I'm not an ebullient sort who wafts through life oblivious to the mayhem around me. I have a tendency to soak up the surrounds instead of treading all over it. In many ways this makes me a better photographer than I might have been, simply by being sensitive to others and motivated to understand them. Sensitivity makes life difficult at times though.
Rejection is unavoidable in my line of work, both as a writer and as a photographer. You submit quotes for a job and your price is too high, your package is too elaborate, your dates are too soon, your delivery is too late, your style is too quirky, your shoes are too pointy and your emails are far too long for anyone to actually read them.
I stopped pitching travel stories to editors many years ago because the rejection made me feel rubbish. Some days are hard enough to feel positive about yourself, and those regular sessions of beating my head against a brick wall were sucking the energy out of my life. I made a few changes to my career strategy at that time, removing anything and anyone from my life who dragged me down.
It's important in this line of work to keep your eyes on positive outcomes, and not waste time on predicting failure. I decided upon a very simple mantra, "plan for success." I have to accept that things wont always work out the way I want, but if you plan for disaster then you're half way towards creating one.
Since that time I've never been so busy with editorial work. With my energy focused on positive outcomes and just doing good work I suddenly found the phone ringing with opportunities and editors sending me emails with commissions. No doubt those years of knocking on doors has had a lasting effect, but without that cycle of rejection I was better able to just get on with running a better business.
I still struggle with the daily mojo in my work, I still find challenges that make me sleep deprived and I still have moments of intense self-doubt as I direct my efforts into new fields of creative work. In truth I've been a little amazed at my good fortune in recent years, especially to have met so many inspiring people to work along side and colleagues to call friends. When it comes to lovely people to share my professional creativity, my cup runneth over. I thank each and every one of those kind souls for sharing their spirit with me.
And every so often I get a great big kick in the head to remind me that I'm just another photographer, just another travel journo, just another tour leader.
Sometimes it comes from being ignored by camera manufacturers who can't be bothered actually sending you their new camera to write a review on. Sometimes it's airlines that email you constantly in their efforts to "engage with the media" only to reject you with a canned reply when you ask for assistance on a series of commissions. Sometimes it's watching all the cool kids being invited to the birthday party while you sit at home and watch the merriment on Facebook.
It's the head on collision between where you want to be in the world and where you really are. On a good day it's humbling, on a bad day it's depressing. Either way it's inevitable and it's never far away. Whatever stage your freelance career might be in there's still rejection and disappointment to be managed. It's intrinsic to the process and the outside world is usually going to be oblivious to such machinations.
I share my challenge with rejection here because so many of us freelancers, small business owners and the self-unemployed don't get a chance to put it on the table. We try to share an upbeat story. Nobody wants to hear your sad moaning about how life is tough and nobody loves me. But it's important to know that it is part of the cycle, it's is part of the challenge. For me is a big one too.
The human brain is wired to be more sensitive to the negative. We take a failure to heart ten times more strongly than a win. There's a reason so many entrepreneurs are the optimistic and extroverted types. These people are less sensitive to the downside because they're always looking at the upside. We're not all naturally like that however, and for the rest of us it's vital to be self-aware and put effort to growing a thicker skin.
Or in my case, stepping away from the emails and finding something more rewarding to do with my day.
I'll finish with a positive note and a piece of advice that a rather lovely colleague of mine once offered. She's a master of the editorial pitch having spent decades on the other side of the fence commissioning people to write for her. Getting a rejection is not the end of the world, and as my friend puts so nicely…
"No doesn't mean no forever, it just means no for now."