Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Cozying up with Rejection

In the midst of a difficult job search I have been thinking quite a bit about rejection lately, what new information can be learned from each new instance of rejection to improve and do better next time, and how to have the right frame of mind in order to stay psychologically afloat in what Daniel Pink calls "the ocean of rejection" that is confronted by sales people every day. Wait, what?  Sales people?  Aren't you an engineer and a scientist?  I'm not selling a product door-to-door right now like the iconic Fuller Brush Man, but I am currently selling my skills and talents to potential employers.  More or less everyone is in the business of selling something these days, persuading people, and trying to move people to change their minds, according to Daniel Pink's book, To Sell Is Human:  The Surprising Truth About Moving Others.  This book, along with some philosophical lessons about rejection from Jia Jiang (who I will get to later) is shaping a lot about how I am currently thinking about rejection.

The Fuller Brush Man

Job searching can and should rightly be seen as an act of salesmanship.  Resumes are marketing materials.  You can treat resumes like Chinese restaurant menus, and fling them into the internet wind or hang them on strangers' doorknobs.  It is no big wonder that this method produces a low hit rate.  Alternatively, resumes can be eerily targeted advertisements to a small set of potential customers who were looking for the exact skills you happen to be the best person in the world to provide.  Your advertisement carries even more weight if it is hand-delivered by a trusted colleague.  All of these things make sense to me.  I have been honing and targeting my advertisements better and better over time and getting more initial contact with employers as a result.

But it turns out your personal marketing materials can actually reach the right people who might want to hire you, you can have hours of what you think are productive telephone and face to face conversations with them, and then you can still get walloped by a new wave breaking in the ocean of rejection.  It might not even have anything to do with you, and you were rejected for reasons that are currently beyond your control.  Bad luck.  Whatever it is.  In those cases it is helpful to have strategies in place to parse out which rejections are related to things you can change and which rejections are out of your control.  That way you can learn what you can learn and have the mental toughness to keep going.  That's what I'm working on now.

Techniques for dealing with rejection from Daniel Pink:

Daniel Pink provides a new ABC's of sales as a 21st century alternative for the outmoded 20th century mantra from Glengarry Glen Ross: "Always Be Closing."  These new ABC's are Attunement, Buoyancy, and Clarity.  You can read the book to learn more about Attunement and Clarity and how they relate to improved outcomes for sales encounters, but Buoyancy is the one that addresses the inevitability of rejection head-on.

Buoyancy is staying afloat in the "ocean of rejection" that is job searching in a sluggish economy.  Or finding investors or early customers for an new entrepreneurial venture.  Or trying to get your first book published and distributed.  Pink gives several strategies for being buoyant in the face of rejection, including using "Interrogative Self-Talk" to pump yourself up before a sales encounter, maintaining a ratio between positive and negative thoughts of roughly 3:1 during an encounter, and maintaining a healthy "explanatory style" to understand a rejection after a sales encounter.  The first and second of these tactics are probably useful, but I think it's the 3rd one that's crucial.

According to Pink, one set of explanatory styles that are a natural reaction to rejection and other bad outcomes is to automatically think of them as permanent, pervasive, and personal.  I have certainly had these sorts of reactions.  However, these thoughts are the enemy of your motivation to keep going.  The key mental trick is to see every setback as "temporary rather than permanent, specific [to that one situation] rather than universal, and external rather than personal."  It's not every time, it's this time.  It's not every similar situation, it's just this one. And sometimes it's really not you, it's them.  Improve your pitch every way you can, try to sell to enough of the right sort of people enough times, and you're eventually bound to find a customer who will buy.

If I ever want to get a novel or a non-fiction book published at a professional publishing house some day, from what I have heard the ocean of rejection can seem vast.  A classic example is J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter books were rejected by publishers a dozen or more times.  It was only finally published by Bloomsbury at the request of the 8 year old daughter of the CEO. It's worrying to think that we as a society were perhaps one 8 year old's taste preferences away, or one quitting decision from J.K. Rowling away, from never having visited Hogwarts together.  I don't really know how she felt after all those rejections while living on the verge of destitution, but I like to think she instinctively had this buoyancy trick down already. Wingardium Leviosa.

Insights on the philosophy of rejection from Jia Jiang:

I have come to realize that rejection and regret are flip sides of the same coin.  Comfort and ease are the enemy of adventure and accomplishing big things.  These and similar ideas have been pointed out by Jia Jiang several times in the tale of his evolution from struggling entrepreneur to rejection guru:

In order to cozy up to the rejection he faced in trying to secure venture funding for his fledgling software start-up, Jia designed a systematic plan to get rejected 100 times in 100 days and started a blog to help him stick to it.  This "Rejection Therapy" included increasingly wacky requests such as asking to play soccer in a stranger's back yard, asking an ultralight aircraft pilot if he could fly his plane without a license or any training, and challenging a random high school kid at the local track to a footrace.  He confronted his own nature and his biggest fears as an introverted Chinese immigrant adrift in a nation of gregarious Americans.

The funny thing is, though, people kept on saying YES.  More than half said yes, no matter how crazy the request.  And other people started watching the videos, and reading his blog, and paying attention to his quest to conquer rejection.  (The Day 3 video about asking a worker at Krispy Kreme to make a model of the interlocking Olympic Rings out of doughnuts has been viewed over 5 Million times.)

According to Jiang, those who have been the most influential in history have also been those whose ideas were rejected most frequently or even most violently rejected.  Jiang's favorite examples for this are Martin Luther King, Jr., and the recently deceased Nelson Mandela. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is, I think, one of the most revolutionary and world-shifting scientific ideas ever articulated.  Few scientific ideas have faced more rejection, by more people, over a longer period of time than Darwinian evolution.  Not everyone has to be as revolutionary and world changing as these fellows, but the point is that the size of the world-changing dream is commensurate with the magnitude of the rejection that you will probably face.

With this type of mind set, I hope you face as much rejection as you can tolerate.  If you are actively avoiding rejection and fear it at every turn, it is probably a good indicator that you're not trying things that are hard enough or new enough.  By being extremely conventional and never taking any risks in life you can minimize the rejection that you will have to face and you will never have to feel uncomfortable.  However, I think it inevitably takes a little risk, the ability to make tough choices, and the mental fortitude to keep going in the face of setbacks in order to build the world you want to live in.

My plan for now is to embrace the headwinds and the buffeting salt sea spray of the inevitable rejections when they come, and take comfort that I'm hopefully still moving in the right direction. Always buoyantly moving forward.

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