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The Art of Rejection – What Leaders Can Learn From Picasso

Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – you know, that one of the five women with the lopsided faces – is considered to be the first Cubist painting of all time.

Not too shabby, wouldn’t you say?

But when it debuted to the public, people didn’t exactly ooh and ah. In fact, they ew-ed. They were angry and outraged (kind of like when Apple announced the name of the iPad.)

Even friends and supporters of the artist didn’t get it. Georges Braque, Picasso’s closest colleague, initially said – “To paint in such a way was as bad as drinking petrol in the hope of spitting fire.”

Not quite a 5-star review.

But Picasso persisted. He had a vision. And he went on to be…well, Picasso.

Here are just several modern-day rejects who made it:

  • There’s a dude who we can thank for lighting up our life – literally. But it wasn’t all love and light in the process to get there – Thomas Edison failed over 10,000 times to invent a commercially viable electric light bulb. Ten thousand freakin’ times! When asked by a newspaper reporter if he felt like a failure and if he should give up, after having gone through over 9,000 failed attempts, Edison replied, “Why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitely over 9,000 ways an electric light bulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp.” What an epic reply!
  • The original Apple Macintosh was a commercial flop — and had the sad, dot matrix spreadsheets to prove it. What if Steve Jobs had folded up his tent and said “I’m done, I’m going to try dolphin training”? You wouldn’t be reading this on your Mac or iPhone (or Samsung even) right now.
  • J.K Rowling described herself as “having failed on an epic scale” before she wrote the Harry Potter series. In a famous Harvard commencement address in 2011, which has since been viewed more than three million times, she spoke of the benefits of failure:
    “Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believed I truly belonged.”

So, what can you, as a leader, learn from that big reject Picasso, and those other big rejects Rowling, Edison, and Jobs?

  1. Don’t judge the quality of your idea by its initial reception.
  2. Give up your need for applause – but not your vision. Be willing to shock, disgust, or leave people scratching their heads, and forget about being instantly accepted.
  3. Put on your big-painter pants. Being innovative is no bed of roses. Picasso roughed it before he made it big. He even burned his own drawings to keep warm! Be prepared to dig in and dig deep if you want to pursue your ground-breaking idea.
  4. Better to fail than to bore. You’ll gain more from crashing and burning than you ever will from coasting. J.K Rowling said in her speech, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case you fail by default”.
  5. Listen to your gut. If your vision for a new and better way of doing things keeps tugging at you, then listen to that voice. Don’t give up.

The last word should be left to the great artist himself, who dared to be downright offensive:

“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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