A friend texted me saying that he thought of me when he watched Jia Jiang’s TED talk “What I Learned From 100 Days of Rejection“:
In a moment of uncanny coincidence, I was also reading a book written by the exact same guy:
Ahhhh rejection. Most of us try to avoid it. Many of us are terrified of it. Some of us face it every single day.
Rejection isn’t like failure. Failure is cool. Today, entrepreneurs proudly announce their failures at conferences. Coders, writers, and artists will tell you how important it is to “fail fast”, so you can learn and move on to the next thing. In today’s society, failure is celebrated as a means to success.
Unlike failure, rejection isn’t cool. You can “fail” at a prototype or a project, and still walk away with your dignity intact. But when you get rejected for a job interview, a marriage proposal, a VC pitch, or even a simple favour, it cuts deep. It makes you question your self-worth. It drives some people to suicide.
Here’s what Jia wanted to find out: What if we could get better at rejection? What if we knew how to deal with it, learn from it, even harness it to become more successful? Would we become more confident? Dare to ask for more? Open up more opportunities?
Jia’s rejection experiment reminded me of one of the biggest rejections in my life, which happened in college almost 10 years ago.
How I Got Rejected Over and Over Again
Strictly Funk was one of the biggest dance groups at my university. Before I started classes, I’d already watched all their YouTube videos, saw them perform during our Freshmen Orientation night, and just knew that I wanted to join them.
Growing up, I’d always considered myself a decent dancer. I know I don’t look like it now, but back in the day, hip-hop dance was my life. I’d been dancing for years, so I figured that I’d have no trouble getting selected.
During the audition, I danced my heart out, sat back with a big, satisfied smile, and waited for the results.
After an agonising 30 minutes, someone started calling out the dancers selected for the next round. They went through the entire list, and my name wasn’t called. They said, “For everyone else, thanks for coming tonight!” I was confused. “Wait,” I thought, “Does that mean that I DIDN’T get selected? How could that be? There’s DEFINITELY a mistake.”
Of course, it wasn’t a mistake. I didn’t even get past the first round. I walked back to my dorm room feeling a mix of resentment and bewilderment. I spent the rest of the night feeling annoyed at myself. “It’s probably a mistake,” I thought, “I’ll try again next semester.”
When next semester rolled around, I auditioned again… and still didn’t get in. I couldn’t find anywhere private (I had a roommate at the time), so I found a secluded stairwell in my dorm and cried like a baby. What the hell was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I get in?
When it comes to rejection, people always give dumb advice like “Don’t take it personally!” Well you know what? When you want something that badly, it’s impossible not to take it personally.
Still, I was determined not to give up. Strictly Funk had two auditions a year, so I kept auditioning for the first 2 years of college. Every time I got rejected, my ego crumbled into pieces. Then I’d pick it up, piece it back together, and audition again.
Sometimes, Pivoting Isn’t An Option
A Silicon Valley entrepreneur would simply say that I was being stupid. Obviously, I wasn’t getting any results. According to conventional startup wisdom, I should have pivoted into something else that would give me a higher return.
But sometimes, pivoting isn’t an option.
Sure, I joined a couple of other dance groups on campus. I did volunteer work and took up committee positions. I made tons of great friends, many whom I still keep in touch with today.
But deep down, I knew that my college experience wouldn’t be complete without joining my dream dance group. And so I kept trying, and trying, and trying. For two long years.
That’s why Jia Jiang’s 100 Days of Rejection resonated so much with me.
Jia really wanted to be an entrepreneur. When he was a kid, he read books about Thomas Edison. Bill Gates was his hero. Like me, he felt the sting of rejection over and over again: When his uncle criticised his product idea, or when an investor rejected his well-rehearsed startup pitch.
After going through his 100 days of rejection, Jia laid out the lessons he learnt in his book: Rejection Proof. I highly recommend it – it’s entertaining, hilarious, and full of little nuggets of wisdom. Here are a couple of insights that stuck with me:
Rejection has a number
Louis CK is one of the world’s most successful comedians. I’d say he’s even funnier than Russell Peters. Well guess what? He struggled for 8 years in complete obscurity in Boston, trying to make ends meet.
History is filled with examples of people who were rejected multiple times before making it big: Michael Jordan being cut from the team, J.K. Rowling being turned down 12 times by publishers, Einstein being labelled “stupid”.
Sometimes, rejection is just a number. With pure persistence, that number runs out and you can turn a “no” into a “yes”.
Rejection isn’t always your fault
Jia once tried to plant a flower in a random stranger’s garden. The first person he asked rejected him immediately. But after Jia politely asked why, the homeowner explained that his dog that would dig up anything he planted. So it wouldn’t make sense for Jia to plant anything there.
In this case, the problem didn’t have anything to do with the rejectee, and everything to do with the rejector.
Similarly, I can apply the same lessons to work. Whenever I get rejected by external partners, I sometimes wonder if it was my fault. Was it because I didn’t say it right? Was it the way I dressed? Was it because I wasn’t senior enough?
But sometimes, the rejection had nothing to do with me. I’ve had partners reject me because they simply didn’t have the resources. Or because they were undergoing a restructuring. Or because they were locked into another contract.
I could have delivered the world’s best pitch, and I would still be rejected. But I understood the importance of asking a sincere “Why?” so I could learn from each experience.
Rejection teaches you how to improve
However, a rejection sometimes IS because of you.
Back in college, I thought I was a good dancer. But if I was completely honest, I could have controlled my energy a lot better. It took me years, but I trained myself to control my moves and make them more precise.
In one of my auditions, I got my friend Anh (Hi Anh!) who was part of the group to coach me and tell me how I could improve. If it weren’t for my multiple rejections, I would have probably never improved my technique.
Epilogue: What happens when you keep trying?
Wanna know what eventually happened to my Strictly Funk experience?
The 5th time I auditioned, I actually made it all the way to the final round. By that time, I was so used to getting rejected that I didn’t care anymore. It was my final year at college, and I figured that if I didn’t make it, it just wasn’t meant to be.
We were all told to stay in our rooms the night the results were announced. I didn’t want to be alone after yet another rejection, so I invited my neighbours over to watch Hairspray (I’m not sure why I picked that DVD). I mentally prepared myself to get a phone call with the familiar words, “Hey, you were awesome at auditions, but….”
About halfway through the movie, I heard a lot of noise outside my door, like there was a party going on. And then I heard: “WE WANNA MAKE YOU FUNK WITH US!”
My heart went up to my throat. I didn’t dare to believe it. I opened the door, and there they were: 6 Funkers jumping up and down and yelling CONGRATULATIONS!!! YOU GOT IN!!! They told me to grab my hoodie and whisked me off to a celebratory welcome party.
Everything after that was surreal. It sounds cliched, but I kept looking around for clues about whether this was all a dream. But it wasn’t a dream, and my last year in college dancing with Funk was one of the best years of my life.
Let’s face it: No one likes rejection. Like Jia, one of the reasons why I changed jobs last year was because I wanted to get stronger at handling rejection. A year into my new job, and I still feel a pit in my stomach whenever I get rejected. It still stings.
But now, I recognise that it’s what I do with that feeling that makes all the difference. No rejection is a waste. There’s always something to learn from it; something that makes you stronger.
And if you’re feeling low because you got rejected recently, I know exactly how you feel. Keep the faith. If you keep learning and trying, you’ll never know what might happen.