I finished the presentation and looked around at the sea of faces. Some were slowly nodding. Others were still weighing the proposal.
But I’d proven my case. I knew it was worthwhile. The need was there. And the benefit outweighed the cost. We’d researched and crafted the argument for weeks. And I knew it was an important step for the company to take.
Now I just needed to field any last minute questions and convince the remaining holdouts.
And then, to my own horror, I said, “It’s just some initial thoughts. We really can go either way.”
And I’m thinking, “What! What the hell did you just say? It’s not some initial thoughts! It’s the product of weeks of effort.”
But the damage was done. I trivialized my investment and lost the confidence of the group. I wasn’t getting any agreements that day.
People Don’t Pay Us What We’re Worth
“No one will ever pay you what you’re worth. They’ll only pay you what they think you’re worth.” — Casey Brown
In her TED talk, Casey Brown discusses our tendency to under-represent ourselves. How our doubts and fears come into play and limit our earning potential.
And it’s not isolated to financing. If we’re constantly undervaluing our contributions it has negative impacts on our confidence and feelings of self-worth.
So why do we do this? Why do we undersell our own work? Why would I sabotage my own presentation by downplaying my investment?
I’m Just Writing for Something to Do
If someone asked me about writing these posts, I’d say it’s just something I started recently. Something to do, but I don’t take it too seriously.
But that’s not true. I do take it seriously and I want them to be well received. I recognize I’m not the best writer, but I’m working at it and I want to improve. Because this is important to me.
Then why do I undersell the importance? Why do I pretend as if I don’t care?
And the real answer is that I’m afraid of rejection.
I don’t take rejection well. I take it personally. I know that I shouldn’t, but I do.
So it’s something I try to avoid. And barring that, I’ll try to minimize the sting.
When I downplay my investment, I give myself an out. It’s easier to take a rejection if I say it’s “just some initial thoughts.” I save face in front of others and desensitize myself.
But Everyone Says to Not Take Rejection Personally
There’s no shortage of advice that tells us the importance of disconnecting ourselves from our work. Steven Pressfield captures it well with the following section of The War of Art,
“The professional loves her work. She is invested in it wholeheartedly. But she does not forget that the work is not her. Her artistic self contains many works and many performances. Already the next one is percolating insider of her. The next will be better, and the one after that better still.”
Or take Austin Kleon’s advice from Show Your Work, that “You have to remember that your work is something you do, not who you are.”
And these are all excellent pieces of advice. But reading them hasn’t made rejection any easier. And seeing them again doesn’t immediately help me divorce my sense of self from the work that I do.
And I don’t think I’m alone in this regard. Most people I know who throw themselves into their work have a strong personal stake in it.
So should we really be trying to avoid this vulnerability? And if so, just how exactly are we supposed to do that?
The Importance of Passion
“Passion persuades.” — Anita Roddick
Have you ever asked someone to tell you about their passion? The change in their temperament is immediately noticeable. They become excited and energetic. They smile and wave their hands. And that excitement becomes contagious.
We want to be around others who are invested in their work.
Would anyone listen to a salesperson who didn’t believe in their product? Or follow a leader who was only half-heartedly invested in a vision?
Or what if one of my engineers gave me a product and said, “this is just my first shot, I haven’t really spent a lot of time on it?” I’d probably say, “okay, come back when it’s your best work and you have spent a lot of time on it.”
The answer cannot be reduced investment. Because dissociating passion from our work only limits its impact. And puts us on a path of irrelevance, which is far worse than rejection.
The Goal is Toughness, Not Hardness
If the answer isn’t to withdraw our passion, then the next piece of advice is to harden ourselves against rejection. That we should desensitize ourselves to the act of rejection through repeated exposure.
And I’m sure there’s some truth to this.
But I often worry about the unintended consequences of this practice. Do we really want to desensitize ourselves? Should we aim for hardness?
Because hardness doesn’t come without trade-offs.
In material science, we harden materials to increase their strength. Through different heat treatment processes or work hardening we can significantly increase a material’s resistance to permanent deformation.
But this benefit doesn’t come for free. We increase strength at the expense of ductility. Now the material is less flexible and more brittle. It’s more susceptible to brittle fracture, a failure scenario that often comes without warning and has catastrophic results.
Toughness, on the other hand, is a measure of the material’s ability to yield and absorb rapidly applied stress. Strength is important, but it’s primarily a function of a material’s ductility — an ability to yield with stress without having permanent damage.
And if we want to develop a design that’s resistant to fracture — that can withstand the hits and shocks of life — we want a tough material, not a hard material.
It’s the same properties when we’re dealing with rejection. We don’t want to harden ourselves against rejection. That only makes us unyielding. It may help us withstand the initial stress, but in the long-term it makes us more brittle.
Instead we need to focus on toughness. On increasing our flexibility over strength. On managing ways to absorb the stress of rejection and roll with it instead of just focusing on resisting the impact.
Rejection Is Just the First Step
“‘No’ is the start of the negotiation, not the end of it. We’ve been conditioned to fear the word ‘No.’ But it is a statement of perception far more often than of fact.” — Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference
As former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss discusses in Never Split the Difference, we don’t want a superficial agreement. We need a strong commitment if we expect others to hold to the decisions made. And we gain that commitment by listening to objections and modifying our approach accordingly.
We gain that commitment when we invite rejection early and use it as a means to better understand the other side. Because then we’re learning about others’ priorities. We better understand their concerns and motives and we’re better able to resolve them.
People often cite Jia Jiang as an example of someone who’s succeeded by hardening himself against rejection through exposure. (If you haven’t watched his 100 days of rejection, I highly recommend it. My personal favorite is his day as a Starbucks greeter.) But while Jia’s experiences have helped him embrace rejection, I don’t see his success as a result of hardening himself. His success came from understanding that the initial rejection is only a starting point. From taking that initial rejection, and responding with authenticity and genuine interest to more easily diffuse people’s concerns.
When we’re flexible, we’re able to adapt with rejection. We can better modify our product or argument to overcome this feedback. And we’re stronger as a result.
We need to stop considering rejection as something we harden ourselves against. That doesn’t let us adapt. It just lets us repeat the same mistakes. Instead, we need to see rejection as the first piece of information that let’s us understand our counterpart’s concerns. So we can adapt and diffuse them as quickly as possible.
So Stop Considering It as Rejection
“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” — Orson Welles
After one major career disappointment, a manager told me, “It’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you get back up.”
And I told him, “Only a complete moron would stay in the same spot where he keeps getting knocked down.”
So I prefer to think of rejection as simply the opening moves of a game. The opening chapter in a story. The start of a negotiation.
In this way, it’s not about hardening ourselves to rejection, it’s about absorbing it and adapting.
It’s not about getting back up to prepare for another blow. It’s adjusting our approach slightly so we’re less likely to get knocked down in the next round.
It’s about getting that “No” so we can focus on overcoming the obstacles behind it.
Rejection is still difficult. It still stings. For me at least, that part hasn’t changed. But it helps to recognize it’s just one chapter in our story. An opening invitation to understand and improve. And come back stronger as a result.
Because to quote Debbie Millman, “I don’t think rejection is ever final until you stop trying to succeed.”
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