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Learn How to Persevere Like a Failed 'American Idol' Contestant

A sociologist looks to reality television contestants to understand how humans deal with rejection.
William Hung, American Idol's most famous failed auditioner. (Photo: Fox)

William Hung, American Idol's most famous failed auditioner. (Photo: Fox)

Throughout its 15-year run on primetime television, American Idol was more often than not the most watched program in the United States. While the talent-based reality show catapulted a few singers to stardom, the show's cameras have captured far more people aspiring to musical fame and notoriety than those actually achieving it. That is to say, for every Kelly Clarkson, there are five William Hungs (who, admittedly, got a pretty sweet deal for a guy with a bad voice).

Tens of thousands of hopeful singers audition every year; only two percent make it past the first round. To watch the show is to watch a succession of eliminations, which is why Junhow Wei, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, decided it would make fertile ground for studying rejection. In a study published this week in Symbolic Interaction, Wei interviewed 43 hopeful contestants to find out why, in the face of almost certain rejection, they persevered, often repeatedly auditioning for one of the coveted competition spots.

Wei, a former contestant himself, attended the first round of auditions in Florida and Colorado in 2009, and in New Jersey in 2010. The perseverance of the Idol contestants, Wei surmised from the interviews, rests largely on the idea that success in the show will be "democratically rewarded" to those who deserve it—the singers with the most talent and practiced work ethic. That said, the interviewees held no irrational expectations that they would win. They knew the odds were astronomically against them.

Still, Wei noted, auditioning subjected their talent to scrutiny—a test that could forever alter their sense of identity and self-worth. Wei found that some contestants turned to venting (crying, for example, or unleashing anger or frustration in conversations) as a way of dealing with rejection, while others minimized the significance of the setback (such as framing the experience as being "just for fun"). Many failed contestants shared one particular strategy: focusing on future auditions. By doing so, contestants could downplay their rejection as a product of an idiosyncratic judging process or a singular off performance, and leave with their self-perception of being a talented singer still intact. Of the 43 interviewees, 34 said they would audition again; seven of them already had.

According to Wei, the same coping strategies Idol contestants use to deal with rejection could be useful for anyone seeking to turn their creative talents into a career, even off the stage.