Learning from Rejection

All his life, Jia Jiang wanted to be an entrepreneur — not because he wanted wealth, but because he wanted to change the world like his heroes Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Having immigrated to America from China as a teenager, he dutifully attended college while continuing to dream of a great invention.

At college, Jiang got his first big idea: combining sneakers with the then-popular roller blades by putting wheels on shoes. He spent a few days drawing up plans, which he then submitted to an uncle he admired. The uncle rejected the idea outright, telling him to spend his time studying, not inventing. Dutifully, Jiang obeyed. Two years later, someone else invented sneakers with wheels on them and made a fortune.

Scared off entrepreneurship by his first rejection, Jiang graduated from college and took a series of stable jobs with large companies. He married, bought a house, saved money, and began to live a comfortable upper middle class lifestyle. But he was unhappy; more than anything, he wanted to be an entrepreneur.

One day, his wife, although eight months pregnant, encouraged him to quit his job and take six months to turn an entrepreneurial vision into reality. Emboldened by her support, he decided to try to bring an app to market. Four months later, having assembled and managed a top-flight team of coders and designers, he waited nervously for a decision from a venture capitalist. Would his app receive the funding it needed to hit the market?

Again, he was rejected. Once again, someone had seen no value in his idea. Jiang was devastated.

After going through the usual early stages of loss, he eventually decided to push on. Instead of simply plowing ahead with his app idea, though, he decided to first address his fear of rejection. He would do so by setting himself the goal of receiving a hundred rejections in a hundred days, thereby, like a fighter pounding a log, desensitizing himself to the suffering . He would video each request and rejection (he assumed he would only receive rejections), post the video on the blog, and write some comments.

The requests and rejections he received are already amply chronicled elsewhere; you can read more about them by checking out his original blog or by buying a copy of the book (the donuts in the picture above are a reference to his first big success). More interesting, though, are the results of his decision. First, what started as a decision to slay a personal demon made him a hero for untold numbers of followers who were fighting their own version of his fear. And second, contrary to his initial assumptions, he heard “Yes” more often than “No.”

This last point is the most interesting, and one of the main reasons to read the book. As he continued to explore rejection, Jiang learned how to adjust the nature of his requests and the conversations around them so that the rejection could turn positive. Sometimes people referred him to someone who could satisfy his request, sometimes they made a counter-offer that they were happy to fulfill, and sometimes they even eventually said “Yes.”

After a few chapters, the book becomes a series of meditations on the psychology of rejection, illustrated by examples from Jiang’s own set of requests and rejections. Jiang establishes eleven main observations about rejection:

  1. Rejection is human: it doesn’t establish the absolute truth about the quality of your idea.
  2. Rejection is an opinion: it reflects the rejector more than the rejectee.
  3. Rejection has a number: ask someone enough times, and he will eventually say “Yes”; alternatively, ask a different person each time, and you will eventually find one who says “Yes.”
  4. Ask “Why?” before saying goodbye: you might get some information that will help you change your approach or understand why it failed.
  5. Retreat, don’t run: after the initial rejection, try to pitch the idea in a different way.
  6. Collaborate, don’t contend: ask the rejector to imagine how he might use the invention that you are proposing.
  7. Switch up, don’t give up: come back to the rejector with an entirely different idea instead of giving up altogether.
  8. Motivation: let the experience motivate yourself to prove that the rejection was wrong.
  9. Self-improvement: use the rejection to improve on your original idea and send it back for another review.
  10. Worthiness: consider the possibility that perhaps the rejection signals the unconventional and creative nature of the idea.
  11. Character Building: use the no to strengthen yourself mentally (“If I didn’t give up when he said ‘No,’ why would I give up when anyone else said ‘No’?”).

But the biggest benefit that Jiang gained from his journey was not learning, like some super salesman, how to turn “No” into “Yes.” The biggest benefit was freeing himself from the fear of rejection, and, more generally, from fear itself. It’s this benefit that he wants to share with the world. He asks us, “how many more dreams would be fulfilled, how many more cool ideas would be realized, and how many more love stories would be written if we weren’t afraid of rejection?”

It’s a great set of rhetorical questions that he offers us here, a set of questions that echoes admonitions from writers and leaders throughout history. As an English teacher, I am reminded in particular of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s rebuke of those who give up their dreams in order to settle for security: “Explore, and explore. … Why should you renounce your right to traverse the star-lit deserts of truth, for the premature comforts of an acre, house, and barn? Truth also has its roof, and bed, and board. Make yourself necessary to the world, and mankind will give you bread, and if not store of it, yet such as shall not take away your property in all men’s possessions, in all men’s affections, in art, in nature, and in hope.”

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