How to Get Comfortable With Rejection

Between experiences in love and work, launching your adult life can feel like an endless parade of rejection.

Take Tinder for example. In 2014, 50 million people were using the app every month, swiping more than 1 billion times a day. Yet only 12 million matches were made a day. Those odds aren’t good, yet Tinder is incredibly popular. In that digital environment, it’s almost a guarantee that someone you find attractive won’t feel the same way about you.

Everyone gets rejected. But how you react to it is up to you.

Rejection pbs rewireJia Jiang was 6 years old when he experienced a rejection that would long define him. His teacher wanted to teach his class about the importance of complimenting others. The students took turns complimenting one another; when a student received a compliment, they got to choose from a pile of gifts the teacher had placed at the front of the classroom.

The gifts dwindled as Jiang’s classmates were called to the front. Eventually, he was left seated, in tears, with two other classmates. None of the other students wanted to compliment them.

Jiang said in a TED talk that he spent his adult life trying—and failing—to fight the fear of rejection he had learned as a 6-year-old. The counterpoint to that fear was the entrepreneurial spirit he had developed after meeting Bill Gates as a teen. At 14, he decided he wanted to start a business so powerful it would eventually buy Microsoft.

But, to be an entrepreneur, you have to experience a lot of rejection. At 30, he found himself without the big company he dreamed of starting. He was crippled by the fear of being told “no,” he said, wanting to be like his 14-year-old self but feeling held back by his 6-year-old self, even in his corporate day job.

He eventually tried to start his company, but was rejected by a potential investor. That letdown almost snuffed out his dream entirely, Jiang said. He felt like giving up. Instead, he googled “How do I overcome the fear of rejection?” What he found would change the trajectory of his life.

Saying ‘yes’ to ‘no’

Jiang stumbled upon rejectiontherapy.com, a website that then touted a crash course in rejection by Canadian entrepreneur Jason Comely.

Comely advocated desensitizing yourself to rejection by setting yourself up for it for 30 days straight. That’s right—actively putting yourself in situations where you will likely be turned down.

Jiang accepted the challenge, but he wanted to take it farther. He vowed to get rejected for 100 days straight, and capture each rejection on video.

The first day of the challenge, Jiang asked a stranger for a $100 loan. When the stranger rejected him, Jiang apologized and ran away. Then he watched his recording of the interaction, and realized what needed to change about how he responds to rejection—in all areas of his life.

Rejection pbs rewireThe stranger “even asked me, ‘Why?'” Jiang said. “In fact, he invited me to explain myself. And I could’ve said many things. I could’ve explained, I could’ve negotiated. I didn’t do any of that. All I did was run. I felt, ‘Wow, this is like a microcosm of my life.’

“Every time I felt the slightest rejection, I would just run as fast as I could. And you know what? The next day, no matter what happens, I’m not going to run. I’ll stay engaged.”

The next day, when he asked the cashier at a burger place for a “burger refill” after finishing his meal, he got turned down. But he explained to the cashier why a burger refill option would make him an even happier and more loyal customer. The cashier took his comments into account. Over the course of his 100 days, Jiang learned to ask follow up questions after experiencing a rejection. It helped him to work through and depersonalize feelings of rejection, and learn how to do and ask better the next time.

The third day of the challenge, when Jiang asked the cashier at a Krispy Kreme donut shop if she could make him an arrangement of donuts in the style of the Olympic rings, he got a huge surprise. The donut-maker not only accommodated Jiang’s request, she worked with him to make sure it was true to his vision.

Jiang’s recording of his failed rejection went viral.

Turning a curse into a gift

Today, Jiang is a professional speaker about overcoming the fear of rejection. He urges other people to put themselves in uncomfortable situations where they’re likely to be told “no.” He wants to normalize the experience of being rejected. It’s the only way we, and our society, can move forward.

“In my research I found that people who really change the world, who change the way we live and the way we think, are the people who were met with initial and often violent rejections,” Jiang said in his talk. “People like Martin Luther King, Jr., like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or even Jesus Christ. These people did not let rejection define them. They let their own reaction after rejection define themselves.”

But “we don’t have to be those people to learn about rejection,” he said.

“In my case, rejection was my curse, was my boogeyman,” Jiang said. “It has bothered me my whole life because I was running away from it. Then I started embracing it. I turned that into the biggest gift in my life. …

“When you get rejected in life, when you are facing the next obstacle or next failure, consider the possibilities. Don’t run. If you just embrace them, they might become your gifts as well.”

Want to take the Rejection Therapy challenge? Find out more here.

This article is part of America’s Entrepreneurs: Making it Work, a Rewire initiative made possible by the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation and EIX, the Entrepreneur and Innovation Exchange.  

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.