Last year Maria Nazdravan, an advertising copywriter, found herself in a relatable situation: feeling creatively uninspired and unfulfilled in her job. Bored on a holiday, she started doodling comics about two blobs rejecting each other and posted them on Instagram. The drawings gained a small following, and soon people began telling her about their own deeply personal experiences of rejection.
"That’s how I realised how big rejection is," she says. "I found it sad that we hold on to these painful experiences and let others decide for us all the ways in which we’re lacking."
Nazdravan decided to start a podcast about all the different forms of rejection, from dating to creative work. She launched her first episode in April, and since then she has interviewed guests ranging from a former crush who broke her heart to a lecturer from The School of Life. In her most recent episode she talks to creative directors Rae Stones and Craig Mandell, her former bosses from Edelman Deportivo, about how to face rejection as a creative.
Now a copywriter at Ogilvy UK, Nazdravan’s side project is to "create a world where rejection is normalised and even ridiculed, but also framed as a powerful learning tool," she says. She talks to Campaign about what she’s learned about rejection since starting her podcast, including how it can help creativity.
What's the worst rejection you've ever faced?
Before I moved to London I used to work at a place that was insanely fast-paced and competitive, but we were constantly making great work and winning awards. The problem with competition within the department is that it can become toxic. Our creative director was and still is a brilliant man, but he could be quite brutal when he didn’t like an idea. He pushed us very hard. Of course, I took all the rejections personally, even though they weren’t. I just didn’t know how to handle rejection. Those two years almost broke me, and I might have ended up in therapy for a while. But, you know what, I did some of my best work and learned almost everything I know today, which I’m always going to be grateful for.
What have you learned about rejection since starting your podcast?
I’m learning every day. I’m asking people all the time to be on the show, and believe it or not, not everyone’s up for broadcasting their intimate stories. I’m learning to not take it personally. I have to keep reminding myself that people probably didn’t want to talk to Ira Glass when he was starting out 20 years ago either, and look at This American Life now.
I’ve also learned that you can say no to people in a way that makes them feel good, even though they’ve just been rejected. Tim Ferris did a short and sweet episode on the best rejections he’s ever received, where he breaks down the genius formula behind them. And I’ve seen it myself, when a few months ago a famous contemporary philosopher declined my proposal to be on the show in a way that left me feeling quite pleased. Even though he rejected my invitation, he replied right away and was very clear about why he couldn’t do that at the time, congratulated me for the idea, and wished me the best of luck. Rejection goes both ways, and it doesn’t take much to minimise the impact we have when we reject someone.
How can rejection help creativity?
Imagine a world where everyone stops at their first idea. How average would everything be? As creatives, we face rejection every day, and that’s actually great. It pushes us to innovate more, to look in new places, and to build better filters for ideas in our own heads. But it’s hard, because creativity is so personal, so if someone rejects your ideas, it can feel like they’re rejecting you. That’s why I was so keen to do an episode about rejection and the creative ego. It was interesting to see how differently creatives respond to rejection. For some it always stays deeply personal, but for others it’s just a tool that filters through a seemingly endless supply of ideas in their head. But ultimately, you have to learn to brush it off.
How can you reject a creative partner's idea without damaging the relationship?
I tell this story on the show about this time I thought I had a brilliant idea and I was enthusiastically talking about it to my creative partner. There I was, expecting applause, cheers, high fives, and all I got was uncontrollable laughter and his reply: "Maria, that’s literally the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard". I was stunned at first, but soon I realised how dumb my idea really was and I joined him in laughing at myself. And this happens almost every day.
Strong teams create their own language and boundaries around rejection. As Rae Stones said on the latest episode, it’s quite nice to be in a position where you don’t have to worry about someone else’s feelings, because you’re both focused on something bigger than your own egos. Considering how much rejection you’re facing as a creative already outside the team, you’d better be partnered with someone you can be so blunt with. I’m lucky that my creative partner is just as silly as me, so even when things get tense or stressful, we still laugh and have fun.
How do you recover from rejection?
Oh boy. I usually try to laugh it off. If I can’t do that on my own, I’ve got a good bunch of friends around who will tease me until the whole thing feels ridiculous to be upset about. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll give it time. By that I don’t mean hoping to forget about it. As psychotherapist Esther Perel says on her new podcast, it’s not time that heals, it’s what you do within it. So I’ll try to do some introspection to uncover what fear or insecurity allowed me to get so hurt. And when that doesn’t work, I start a podcast where I can talk about rejection all the time.
Why did you want to start a podcast and what do you hope others get out of it?
I wanted to create a platform where we can discuss rejection candidly, with humour and understanding. Even though I had no experience with radio, it felt like the ideal medium. There’s so much emotion involved in rejection, and I wanted the audience to feel that. It’s so much more powerful when you hear someone’s voice break, or an awkward laugh.
I’m hoping that the podcast will start changing the way we talk and think about rejection. I’m hoping it’ll help people realise that everyone gets rejected, even the folks they’re idolising, and that it’s completely up to us whether we let it destroy us or we use it to grow. Equally, I’m hoping it’ll make us more aware of how we reject others too. Easy, right?