How Failure Plays a Key Role in Future Success

Learn real strategies and solutions for turning lost bids and negative feedback into positive opportunities!


Working freelance can be rewarding and liberating, but it can be also be a tough road, especially in the beginning. Every successful freelance career starts with a lot of rejections. Your pitches and proposals will get turned down, and even after you get the job, your work may get criticized or rejected. Those rejections hurt, but they're necessary steps toward the career you want. No freelancer ever got every job they applied for right from the start.

As a beginning freelancer, it can feel like you're shooting all your carefully crafted proposals off into outer space. When you're sending out lots of pitches and proposals but getting nothing back, there are a few things you can do to make that rejection bearable and useful. Here are some tips on how to keep a positive attitude and get something productive out of the experience.

Don't Get Attached to Individual Jobs

Sometimes when you are job hunting, you come across a little gold nugget: the perfect job. You know you could do it well, it fits your experience exactly, and the pay and terms are great. You craft your proposal perfectly, attach your very best work, and still don't get the job.

Getting too excited about individual jobs will almost always lead to disappointment, and disappointment just makes it harder to give your best effort to the next proposal. When you find those gold nugget jobs, craft the very best application you can, and then try to forget about it as soon as you hit send. At this stage in your career, the point is experience and quantity, not this or that individual job.

The Harder You Try, the More Rejections You Get

You can't get rejected if you don't apply. As you practice not getting attached to individual jobs, keep in mind that rejections are a necessary part of the process. Musicians don't get upset every time they make a mistake in practice, athletes understand that they'll miss a lot of shots before they make one, scientists put in countless hours on failed experiments and dead-end research. Freelancing is no different: you earn success with failure. Rejections are natural and mean you're trying and learning. The more you get, the more proposals you're sending out, and the faster you'll work your way to success.

Rejections Happen for Lots of Reasons

You shouldn't dwell on individual rejections, but of course, you sometimes will. As you try to get past your disappointment and move on, it's important to remember that a customer may reject your proposal for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality.

Clients hire freelancers to do jobs they can't do themselves. That means that most of them are not very familiar with your field, and may not have a good sense of how to judge the quality of your work. Or maybe they didn't like your profile picture or were spacing out when they scrolled by your application or are just having a bad day. In most cases, you have no way of knowing why you were passed over, and should try not to waste your energy wondering.

Try Different Strategies

All that said, rejection can also work as a kind of feedback. If your applications have all been getting rejected, try making your cover letter shorter or longer, changing its focus, presenting your experience in a different way. Attach a different piece of sample work. Remember that many freelance platforms only display the first few lines of your application: if you want the client to click "read more", you have to make an immediate impression. Even if you're not applying for a writing job (and even more so if you are), make sure everything you submit is clear, concise, and grammatically correct. Consider showing your applications to friends you trust to give honest feedback, and listen to what they say. These proposals are practice, and that means two things: that you will make mistakes, but that you should try to make every attempt a little better than the one before. Rejections can help you evaluate what's working and what isn't, helping you perfect your pitches over time.

When Clients Criticize Your Work

All that hard work has finally paid off, and you've gotten some jobs. Great! But when you deliver the work, the client isn't always happy with it. Criticism or rejection of submitted work can be even more discouraging and upsetting than not getting the jobs at all. Negative client responses don't necessarily mean you're bad at your job, but they can be learning opportunities. Remember that at the start of a project many customers don't have a clear idea of what they are looking for, and sometimes the only way to home in on what they do want is to get a reaction to something they don't want.

Know When to Listen

Rejection and negative feedback come in wildly different forms. Sometimes clients will make things easy for you: they'll have specific problems and a clear vision of what they wanted instead. In that case, you may be able to make changes and deliver something the client is happy with in the end, and at the very least you can make a note of that criticism and avoid the same problems next time.

Other times, it isn't like that. From clients who "just want something different" to those who insult or belittle you, some feedback is just not helpful. They may not know your field well enough to know what they're unhappy about, or they may just be bad communicators or angry people. When clients criticize or reject your work, listen to them carefully: if you can figure out what the issue is, try to fix it or keep it in mind for next time. If you really can't tell in a specific way what they wanted different, you won't gain anything by dwelling on it, and should just move on.

Look for Solutions

If the client's feedback is unhelpful and they don't leave any space for dialogue, you're just done with that client and can try to forget about it. If the client wants you to make revisions or seems to want a conversation with you about the rejection, even if their feedback is unhelpful at first, you'll get the most out of the interaction if you try to figure out what the problem was.

When clients are vague about the issue, you can sometimes zero in on it by giving them a range of options. Break your work down into sections or aspects and ask about each individually, and offer a few different potential solutions. Presenting some multiple choice questions may help you arrive at a solution you're both happy with, but even if it doesn't, it will at least let you get something useful out of the experience.

Know When to Cut Your Losses

Clients may reject your work outright without giving a reason. They may request changes, but be unwilling or unable to tell you exactly what changes and keep the process dragging on. Whether the client has a valid complaint or not, if they aren't communicating it to you in a way that you can understand, there's nothing to be gained there. It's time to cut your losses and move on.

It doesn't mean you're a bad freelancer or a bad person. Criticisms of your work are just that: criticisms of your work, not you. It isn't always easy, but the more you're able to stand back, analyze the issue, and either course-correct or just move on, the more successful you'll be in future attempts. You can incorporate bad feedback into your future strategies, and some are best just ignored. Learning to tell the difference, and learning not to take either personally, is the fastest way to success. Practice makes perfect, and every attempt, success or a failure, gets you a little closer to your goals.