Ending His Fear of Rejection

Alumnus Jia Jiang M.B.A.'09 did a 100-day experiment to learn how to accept 'no.'
October 12, 2015

There's a memory that Jia Jiang M.B.A. ’09 can’t get out of his head. He’s six years old. He’s standing before all of his classmates. He feels alone.

It’s Christmas in Beijing, where Jiang was born and raised, and his kindergarten teacher is orchestrating a lesson on kindness. She’s filled the front of the classroom with wrapped gifts, and she tells the students to pick one to give away to a classmate. And because she wants them to learn about more than just material gifts, she asks them to deliver a compliment along with their present, a virtual teddy bear of affirmation to go along with the stuffed animal or colored pencil set they are giving away.

As his classmates’ names are called, Jiang cheers them on, confirming every compliment with enthusiastic applause. This is a child who does not do anything halfway. He’s all in.

Pair after pair of students swap presents and sit down, collapsing with contentment. Eventually the crowd dwindles to three. The teacher prods the class to say something nice about the remaining trio. But there is only silence. Jiang looks out at the crowd, the children bouncing and smiling. He begins to cry.

It is the first time in his life he feels rejected.

Some twenty-five years later, Jiang is weaving through a swarm of people in the Bryan Center on Duke’s campus, looking for someone to turn him down. It’s April, just a few weeks after Duke won the basketball national championship, and the center is alive with students cramming for finals and shoppers stocking up on Duke gear. Jiang scans the crowd, surging and turning like a cyclone of energy. He’s here to ask outrageous favors of complete strangers, to make requests that they won’t possibly do. Or at least that’s the plan.

He approaches a student sitting near the Bryan Center box office. She’s wearing a Barcelona club shirt, a laptop nestled in her lap like a soccer ball. Jiang walks up from behind her, peers over her shoulder, and says hello. The student looks up, clasping her hands above her laptop and offering a guarded “hi.” After asking what she’s studying (cultural anthropology and global health), he dives in. “Can I be your pro bono tutor?” he asks, as casually as if he’d asked for the time of day.

“Uhhh—like tutor me?” the student says, picking up her cell phone. “Well, what I’m doing right now is I’m writing a paper.”

“Oh, I love writing papers,” Jiang says, bringing his hands together as if in prayer. “I’m really good at it.” His hands explode outward like fireworks.

“That’s okay,” she replies, sneaking glances at her computer screen. “It’s like an autobiographical kind of paper.”

Jiang sees his way in. “Autobiographical! I’ve done just that,” he says. A student sitting in a club chair twenty feet away turns to listen. “Trust me,” he says. “I spent a whole year writing one.”

Jiang is referring to his first book, Rejection Proof, published earlier this year by the Crown self-help imprint Harmony. The book, which begins as a memoir and yields to a field guide of advice, is based on his unusual personal journey to get comfortable with rejection. For 100 days in 2012 to 2013, Jiang videotaped himself— a smartphone hooked to a lanyard around his neck—asking strangers for the impossible. He posted the videos online as a personal journal to track the lessons he learned. But when one of the videos appeared on Reddit, the series went viral. People across the world began leaving comments on Jiang’s YouTube page about how they had been inspired by his courage. E-mail messages began filling his inbox faster than he could respond to them. Gawker and CNN called. CBS flew him to New York for an interview.

“I tackled a human problem,” Jiang says. How do you get over the universal shame of being rejected? Get rejected, a lot. “When you hear ‘no,’ you just want to get out of there and leave as soon as possible. But if you stay engaged, that actually takes the sting away.”

Jiang got the idea from a card game called Rejection Therapy, invented by an entrepreneur named Jason Comely after his wife left him and he holed up in his apartment to avoid talking to people. The game deck includes gentle dares designed to help people ease into asking for the things they really want. “Before purchasing something, ask for a discount,” one card challenges.

If Comely dipped a toe in the rejection pool, Jiang took a polar-bear plunge. In his quest to take “no” for an answer, he put himself in a series of increasingly uncomfortable situations, sometimes with laugh-out-loud results. Could he deliver a pizza for Domino’s? (No.) Could he make an in-flight announcement? (Yes.) Could he trade places with a dog and get his hair trimmed at PetSmart? (No.) Could he persuade a complete stranger to let him play soccer in his backyard? (Yes.)

Pretty much any of these situations would have terrified Jiang even two years ago, when he was working as a marketing manager for Dell in Austin, Texas. On the surface, he seemed to have it made—a six-figure salary, a home with his wife, Tracy, his first child on the way. But inside Jiang felt far from having made it. He was depressed. Growing up in China, Jiang had wanted to be an entrepreneur. When he was fourteen, Bill Gates visited Beijing, and as Jiang watched the Microsoft magnate through his TV, Jiang imagined similar success for himself. He told his family that he’d be successful enough to buy out Gates by the time he was twenty-five.

And there had been chances, brief glimmers of those entrepreneurial dreams. In college, he had an idea to make a sneaker with retractable wheels. As he describes it in Rejection Proof, “Kids and adults could be walking one moment and gliding around with their friends the next. The world would become a giant rink, and happiness would be widespread!” He spent a weekend sketching blueprints in his dorm room and mailed copies to his favorite uncle, hoping for praise. But his uncle told Jiang to stop wasting his time, to practice his English so he could land a professional job. Jiang shoved the sketches in a drawer.

About two years later, another entrepreneur, Roger Adams, patented the shoe-skate under the brand name Heelys. Heelys were soon everywhere, even on the feet of Shaquille O’Neal. Seeing his idea take off without him created no rink of happiness for Jiang. He grew resentful.

As Jiang approached his thirtieth birthday, Tracy couldn’t take it anymore. She told him to quit his six-figure job and to pursue building a start-up for six months. If it didn’t work out, she assured him, he could go find another job. Yes, she was about to give birth, and yes, they were accustomed to the comforts of their suburban Texas life. But they could get used to living with less, Tracy told him, if it meant not living with regret.

And so Jiang did it. He quit Dell and came up with an idea for a mobile app called Hooplus, which would help employees stay on task by incentivizing the completion of work goals. He rented an office, hired a team of coders, and started pitching potential investors. Sunny and unflappable as ever, he felt success was inevitable. He dreamt five times that his key investor would agree to fund the project. And so when his phone vibrated while he was at a friend’s birthday party, Jiang couldn’t believe the e-mail message he saw: a short, curt “no.”

Jiang had to walk outside. “It felt incredibly impersonal and personal at the same time,” he says. “I didn’t want people to see me crying in front of them.”

He was nearly out of money, and he felt like a failure. But Tracy reminded him that she had promised him six months to become an entrepreneur. He had two left, she told him. What was he going to do?

Jiang was tired of slamming drawers on blueprints. He was tired of letting others decide how he felt. While he searched for a new investor for his app, he set out to exorcise his demons—the fear and the shame that surfaced in his six-year-old self and had never really stopped. In his public showdown with rejection, he wanted to become as strong as steel, "to come out like a badass," he says.

The next day, Jiang walked through the quiet lobby of the building where he was renting space for Hooplus and asked the first person he saw—a hulking security guard burrowed among a fortress of monitors—to loan him $100. The guard immediately said, "No," and in the same breath asked "Why?" But Jiang didn't hear the question. He was so nervous he practically sprinted away, relieved to be done with his first rejection attempt.

Later, when watching the video, Jiang heard the missed opportunity. "He was inviting me to explain myself," he says.

That's one of the more important lessons Jiang says he learned about rejection—not only did he learn to accept rejection but he learned that sometimes a "no" can become a "yes." If you give people a reason to help you, they often do—and sometimes the motivation is nothing more than just wanting to make your day. On Day Three, Jiang made an impulsive stop at a Krispy Kreme shop in Austin, where he asked a donut maker named Jackie if she could make five interlocking donuts like the Olympic rings. Jackie began sketching a design on the back of a receipt and disappeared into the belly of the bakery. Fifteen minutes later she emerged to present Jiang with what felt like a gold medal in his personal rejection games—a box of donuts decked in blue, yellow, black, green, and red icing, arranged in ring formation. Jackie didn't even make Jiang pay for the donuts. "That's my pleasure," she said pointing to the box.

From the video, it's not clear who reaches for whom first. But the two end up in a hug. "Wow," he told her then. "Jackie, I'm a fan."

What Jiang discovered is that people agreed to his bizarre requests more than 60 percent of the time. And when they turned him down, like the bemused groomer at PetSmart, they were apologetic about rules or regulations that prohibited them from helping. The Duke student writing the paper? Jiang eventually persuaded her, too. ("Write from the heart," he counseled.)

There's probably no harder-earned piece of wisdom from 100 days of rejection that Jiang could offer. After repeatedly approaching total strangers on Austin streets, he's become serious about converting the corporate world. As a consultant, he's taken his message to thousands of employees at Google and IBM—hoping to energize their sales success and creativity by getting them to take risks. Jiang is no longer deterred by the fear of rejection. But he's not exactly a badass, either. He's still putting himself out there, emotionally. Something is at risk.

You can sense that realization starting to happen on Day Ninety-Seven, as Jiang drove to a park in downtown Austin, where he was going to invite people to listen to a story. In the video, he appears distraught and momentarily tries to convince himself it's too hot to go through with his plan. After testing the air with his hand, he sighs. "It's perfect. The temperature is perfect. The timing is perfect. The location is perfect. Everything is perfect."

And then:

"I still want to run away."

After ninety-six days of facing up to rejection, Jiang is still afraid. But now he lets the fear sit with him. He sets up a whiteboard announcing his public storytelling. He waits for people to pass by. He tells his story. And then the remarkable happens. Fear gives way to something entirely possible.

"The world is such a beautiful place. You don't even know," he says to a small group gathered around him as he concludes his story. "I opened myself to the world, and the world opened itself back to me."

 

  • Christina Holder M.Div.'13 the DAA's assistant director of communications.