The Two Speeches: Proposal Failure and Resilience.
This was intended a pre-emptive strike.
As I wrote this I had five proposals out for consideration, and I was also writing two more. It’s worth noting for any students out there, that writing proposals is what you spend a lot of your time doing...
They consist of applications for funding from: My home institution, the Arts council, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and three independent opportunities. Surely one, two, three, four or all five will fail. How will I cope with this rejection, this catastrophe, this WILFUL AND IGNORANT ACT OF SABOTAGE!
Of course it's none of those things, but it can feel like that, and that feeling can be more damaging to your prospects than the rejection itself.
If anything, I’d first like point to the fact that I’m writing applications to lots of different sources, and this is good. Finding funds, learning how to write an application, and having an idea is critical in most walks of life.
The first advice is to ‘Spread your bets’. Don’t rest everything on one project or one funding source. Otherwise you’ll be left with a gaping hole in you schedule and not know what to do with it. Second, the results of funding applications are not personal. If you take rejection personally it can have a perverse effect your future proposals, how you write them, who you write them for, and what kind of projects you put forward. Imagine you don’t make a second application to a funding source based on a prior rejection, only to discover they were hoping you’d reapply? Imagine dropping a project due to a failed application, only to discover there was another funder who would have snapped it up? Whatever you do, don’t develop a list of those who have rejected you, or a graveyard of unsuccessful projects.
Here’s why. During the writing of this, I got an acceptance, a rejection, and a shortlisting. I got the rejection from what you might have considered the ‘sure bet’. The acceptance from a project I’ve been rejected on before, and shortlisting from what I consider to be the most exciting opportunity.
Let’s take those in turn. The rejection comes with an invitation to reapply, with advice on the limitations of the previous application. It might have been easy to get annoyed or deflated with the rejection. But that would be stupid, and counterproductive, it’s not a rejection - it’s a shortlisting with free advice on how to been successful.
The second example is useful, as I have tried and failed with the idea twice before. Other people might have given up, but I stuck with the core idea, and just developed it bit by bit over the years, writing two successively better applications, with a better idea each time. This last time? It also fit the funder’s brief better than before. The right project and the right opportunity. Perhaps before it was only half the idea for the wrong opportunities?
Finally, shortlisting for a great project. I don’t want to jinx it, let’s just say you have to ambitious and apply for the projects you love...
So, over the years I've had what is hopefully a fair balance of successful and failed bids. I have been turned down on the basis of:
The other bids were just written better.
The other ‘ideas’ were better, more relevant.
My idea was not that good, or under developed.
Not a good fit. Could be a great idea, but just not for the fund applied for.
I suppose when I’ve been successful it’s because of a reversal of the above criteria. On those terms it’s worth considering that only two of those are within your control: How well it’s written, and if the idea is well developed. You can’t control other people’s ideas or capabilities, and whether it’s a ‘good fit’ is hard to predict. It’s either your fault for not reading the opportunity correctly, or it’s just an open brief.
What is very difficult, is dealing with the manner of rejection. You can be given you a reason, but this can feel awful either way. If the reason is spurious or incorrect, or a precise critique, both can lead you to feeling angry or deflated. That, or you get no reason at all and you have no idea, leaving only paranoia...
What also happens is that you fall in love with projects. Then it feels like the time, resources, and emotional investment you’ve put in are lost, and can never be recovered. Or you fall in love with the context the gallery, festival, venue or community that the work would be part of, and you’ve been turned away from a group of friends you want to be part of. Again, this may it may feel that way, but that’s far too personal.
Usually someone just had a better idea than you, or write a better application. That’s it.
So, there are a number of ways of dealing with the fallout:
First and most critically, recognise that it’s not a loss, it’s a delay or redirection.
So do the following:
1: Recycle or redirect.
Take what you’ve learned, or the whole idea, and apply it elsewhere.
2: Let it rest/go fallow.
The idea has been turned down. You know what, that’s great, because it wasn’t as good as it could be. Leave it be for a while until you realise what you need to do to make it a great idea.
3: Go again.
There were some errors/weaknesses in the application, fix them, resubmit.
4: Let it go.
This is possibly the easiest or hardest, depending on the project and your attachment to it, but... It’s not your best idea, it’s not going to be, you’ve got a better idea, this has just been practice, or a mistake, that’s fine. Just do the next thing.
So this blog post is titled the two speeches, why? Because when I used to watch ‘The West Wing’ the characters would read a draft of a celebratory presidential speech, and then ask for the ‘other one’. The ‘other speech’ is the one written in the case of failure.
If you have an application pending, write two speeches for yourself. The first one is for when your application is successful, a speech where you give yourself a pat on back for being a good artist, and then plan for ‘what’s next’.
Then write the other letter, the one where you console yourself, where you remind yourself that you are a good artist, and where you plan for what’s next - because there’s always a ‘what’s next’.
They rejected my application!