Jia Jiang: What I learned from 100 days of rejection When I was six years old, I received my gifts. My first-grade teacher had this brilliant idea. She wanted us to experience receiving gifts but also learning the virtue of complimenting each other. So she had all of us come to the front of the classroom, and she bought all of us gifts and stacked them in the corner. And she said, “Why don’t we just stand here...
When I was six years old, I received my gifts. My first-grade teacher had this brilliant idea. She wanted us to experience receiving gifts but also learning the virtue of complimenting each other. So she had all of us come to the front of the classroom, and she bought all of us gifts and stacked them in the corner. And she said, “Why don’t we just stand here and compliment each other? If you hear your name called, go and pick up your gift and sit down.” What a wonderful idea, right? What could go wrong? Well, there were 40 of us to start with, and every time [I heard] someone’s name called, I would give out the heartiest cheer. And then there were 20 people left, and 10 people left, and five left, and three left, and I was one of them. And the compliments stopped. Well, at that moment, I was crying. And the teacher was freaking out. And she was like, “Hey, would anyone say anything nice about these people? No one? OK, why don’t you go get your gift and sit down? So behave next year, someone might say something nice about you.”
Well, as I’m describing this to you, you probably know I remember this really well. But I don’t know who felt worse that day. Was that me or the teacher? She must have realized that she turned a team-building event into a public roast for three six-year-olds – and without the humor. When you see people get roasted on TV, it was funny. There was nothing funny about that day. So that was one version of me, and I would die to avoid being in that situation again – to get rejected in public again. That’s one version.
Then fast-forward eight years. Bill Gates came to my hometown – Beijing, China – to speak, and I saw his message. I fell in love with that guy. I thought, wow, I know what I want to do now. That night, I wrote a letter to my family telling them, “By age 25, I will build the biggest company in the world, and that company will buy Microsoft.” I totally embraced this idea of conquering the world – domination. And I didn’t... no, I didn’t make this up. I did write that letter. And here it is. No, you don’t have to read this through. This is also bad handwriting. But I did highlight some key words. You get the idea. So that was another version of me – one who will conquer the world.
Well, then two years later, I was presented with the opportunity to come to the United States. I jumped on it, because that was where Bill Gates lived. I thought that was the start of my entrepreneur journey.
Then fast-forward another 14 years. I was 30. Nope, I didn’t build that company. I didn’t even start. I was actually a marketing manager for a Fortune 500 company. And I felt I was stuck. I was stagnant. Why is that? Where is that 14-year-old who wrote that letter? It’s not because he didn’t try. It’s because every time I had a new idea, every time I wanted to try something new, even at work – I wanted to make a proposal, I wanted to speak up in front of people in a group – I felt there was this constant battle between the 14-year-old and the six-year-old. One wanted to conquer the world, make a difference. Another was afraid of rejection. And every time, that six-year-old won.
And this fear even persisted after I started my own company. I mean, I started my own company when I was 30. If you want to be Bill Gates, you’ve got to start sooner or later, right? When I was an entrepreneur, I was presented with an investment opportunity, and then I was turned down. And that rejection hurt me. It hurt me so bad that I wanted to quit right there. But then I thought, hey, would Bill Gates quit after a simple investment rejection? Would any successful entrepreneur quit like that? No way. And this is where it clicked for me. OK, I can build a better company, I can build a better team or better product, but one thing for sure: I’ve got to be a better leader. I’ve got to be a better person. I cannot let that six-year-old keep dictating my life anymore. I have to put him back [in] his place.
So this is where I went online and looked for help. Google was my friend. I searched, “How do I overcome the fear of rejection?” I came up with a bunch of psychology articles about where the fear and pain are coming from. Then I came up with a bunch of rah-rah inspirational articles about “Don’t take it personally, just overcome it.” Who doesn’t know that? But why was I still so scared? Then I found this website by luck. It’s called rejectiontherapy.com. Rejection Therapy was this game invented by this Canadian entrepreneur. His name is Jason Comely. And basically, the idea is, for 30 days, you go out and look for rejection, and every day get rejected at something, and then by the end, you desensitize yourself from the pain. And I loved that idea. I said, “You know what? I’m going to do this. And I’ll film myself getting rejected 100 days.” And I came up with my own rejection ideas, and I [made] a video blog out of it.
And so here’s what I did. This is what the blog looked like.
Day One: borrow 100 dollars from a stranger. So this is where I went to where I was working. I came downstairs, and I saw this big guy sitting behind a desk. He looked like a security guard. So I just approached him. And I was just going... I was just walking, and that was the longest walk [of] my life – hair on the back of my neck standing up, I was sweating, and my heart was pounding. And I got there and said, “Hey, sir, can I borrow 100 dollars from you?”
And he looked up, he’s like, “No. Why?”
And I just said, “No? I’m sorry.”
Then I turned around, and I just ran. I felt so embarrassed. But because I filmed myself, so that night, I was watching myself getting rejected. I just saw how scared I was. I looked like this kid in The Sixth Sense. I saw dead people. But then I saw this guy. He wasn’t that menacing. He was a chubby, lovable guy. And he even asked me, “Why?” 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 feel 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.
Day Two: request a “burger refill.” This is where I went to a burger joint, I finished lunch, and I went to the cashier and said, “Hi, can I get a burger refill?”
And he was all confused, like, “What’s a burger refill?”
I said, “Well, it’s just like a drink refill but with a burger.”
And he said, “Sorry, we don’t do burger refill, man.”
So this is where rejection happened. I could have run, but I stayed. I said, “Well, I love your burgers, I love your joint, and if you guys do a burger refill, I will love you guys more.”
And he said, “Well, OK, I’ll tell my manager about it. Maybe we’ll do it, but, sorry, we can’t do this today.”
Then I left. And by the way, I don’t think they’ve ever done burger refill. I think they’re still there. But the life-and-death feeling I was feeling the first time was no longer there, just because I stayed engaged, because I didn’t run. I said, “Wow, great, I’m already learning things. Great.”
And then Day Three: getting Olympic doughnuts. This is where my life was turned upside down. I went to a Krispy Kreme. It’s a doughnut shop in mainly the southeastern part of the United States. I’m sure they have some here too. And I went in, I said, “Can you make me doughnuts that look like Olympic symbols? Basically, you interlink five doughnuts together.” I mean, there’s no way they could say yes, right? The doughnut maker took me so seriously. So she put out paper, started jotting down the colors and the rings, and is like, “How can I make this?” And then 15 minutes later, she came out with a box that looked like Olympic rings. And I was so touched. And I just couldn’t believe it. And that video got over five million views on YouTube. The world couldn’t believe that either.
Because of that, I was in newspapers and talk shows and everything, and I became famous. A lot of people started writing e-mails to me and saying, “What you’re doing is awesome.” But fame and notoriety did not do anything to me. What I really wanted to do was learn and to change myself. So I turned the rest of my 100 days of rejection into this playground, into this research project. I wanted to see what I could learn.
And then I learned a lot of things. I discovered so many secrets. For example, I found if I just don’t run, if I got rejected, I could actually turn a “no” into a “yes,” and the magic word is, “why.” So one day, I went to a stranger’s house, I had this flower in my hand, and I knocked on the door and said, “Hey, can I plant this flower in your backyard?”
And he said, “No.”
But before he could leave, I said, “Hey, can I know why?”
And he said, “Well, I have this dog that would dig up anything I put in the backyard. I don’t want to waste your flower. If you want to do this, go across the street and talk to Connie. She loves flowers.”
So that’s what I did. I went across and knocked on Connie’s door. And she was so happy to see me. And then half an hour later, there was this flower in Connie’s backyard. I’m sure it looks better now. But had I left after the initial rejection, I would’ve thought, well, it’s because the guy didn’t trust me, it’s because I was crazy, because I didn’t dress up well, I didn’t look good. It was none of those. It was because what I offered did not fit what he wanted. And he trusted me enough to offer me a referral, using a sales term. I converted a referral.
Then one day... And I also learned that I can actually say certain things and maximize my chance to get a yes. So, for example, one day, I went to a Starbucks and asked the manager, “Hey, can I be a Starbucks greeter?”
He was like, “What’s a Starbucks greeter?”
I said, “Do you know those Walmart greeters? Those people who say ‘hi’ to you before you walk in the store and make sure you don’t steal stuff, basically. I want to give a Walmart experience to Starbucks customers.”
Well, I’m not sure that’s a good thing, actually. Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s a bad thing.
And he was like, “Oh...” Oh, yeah, this is how he looked. His name is Eric. He was like, “I’m not sure.” This is how he was hearing me. “I’m not sure.”
Then I ask him, “Is that weird?”
He’s like, “Yeah, it’s really weird, man.”
But as soon as he said that, his whole demeanor changed. It’s as if he’s putting all the doubt on the floor. And he said, “Yeah, you can do this. Just don’t get too weird.”
So for the next hour, I was the Starbucks greeter. I said “hi” to every customer that walked in and gave them holiday cheers. By the way, I don’t know what your career trajectory is, don’t be a greeter. It was really boring. But then I found I could do this because I mentioned, “Is that weird?” I mentioned the doubt that he was having. And because I mentioned, “Is that weird?” that means I wasn’t weird. That means I was actually thinking just like him, seeing this as a weird thing. And again and again, I learned that if I mention some doubt people might have before I ask the question, I gained their trust. People were more likely to say yes to me.
And then I learned I could fulfill my life dream by asking. I came from four generations of teachers, and my grandma has always told me, “Hey, Jia, you can do anything you want, but it’d be great if you become a teacher.” But I wanted to be an entrepreneur, so I didn’t. But it has always been my dream to actually teach something. So I said, “What if I just ask and teach a college class?” So I lived in Austin at the time, so I went to the University of Texas at Austin, knocked on professors’ doors, and said, “Can I teach your class?” I didn’t get anywhere the first couple of times. But because I didn’t run, I kept doing it, and on the third try, the professor was very impressed. He was like, “No one has done this before.” And I came in prepared with PowerPoints and my lesson. He said, “Wow, I can use this. Why don’t you come back in two months? I’ll fit you in my curriculum.” And two months later, I was teaching a class. This is me. You probably can’t see. This is a bad picture. Sometimes you get rejected by lighting. But when I finished teaching that class, I walked out crying, because I thought I could just fulfill my life dream just by simply asking. I thought... I used to think I have to accomplish all these things – have to be a great entrepreneur or get a PhD to teach – but, no, I just asked, and I could teach.
And in that picture, which you can’t see, I quoted Martin Luther King Jr. Why? Because 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. 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. And they embraced rejection.
And we don’t have to be those people to learn about rejection. And in my case, rejection was my curse, was my boogeyman. 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. I started teaching people how to turn rejections into opportunities. I use my blog, I use my talk, I use the book I just published, and I’m even building technology to help people overcome their fear of rejection.
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.