Do you remember the last time you were rejected or you felt you'd failed at something? Remember that pain in your chest and arms and feeling deflated? Regardless of who is rejecting you or how it happens failure sucks and it can make you never want to put yourself out there for fear of repeating those same feelings. But you have to, or you'll never find the people and opportunities that are best for you. Today we're going to understand why rejection and failure hurts and give you my top 5 tips for dealing with and overcoming rejection so you can perform at your best all the time every time.
Now if you're reading this because you've recently been rejected or failed at something let's start with a quote by legendary football coach Vince Lombardi:
The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but in rising again after you fall.
So to help you get back up stronger than before we're going to start by understanding the science behind why rejection hurts, why you should love rejection, how to learn from rejection, why control is your worst enemy and why patience and kindness are key if you want to become a hero.
Why Rejection Hurts
Whether it's losing a sale or customer, being ghosted by a potential love interest, denied funding by a VC or passed up for that job offer or promotion rejection hurts. What's worse is that we sometimes incorrectly interpret the pain we feel, viewing rejection or failure as an indication of our self-worth or knock to our identify, leading us to feel even worse. We've all experienced our body's response to a sudden rejection; that sinking feeling, feeling nauseous or a pain in your chest and arms. This is science and part of your body's fight or flight response governed by your sympathetic nervous system in response to a threat.
A University of Michigan study of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans found that rejection actually activates the same parts of our brain as physical pain does. Researchers recruited 40 people who experienced an unwanted romantic break-up within the past six months, and compared their MRI scan response to a physical pain sensation and to the emotional sensation of recalling the event. They also compared their results to a database of 500 MRI scans across pian and emotional responses. The study found that feelings of social rejection activate regions of the brain that are involved in physical pain sensation.
As we learned in my Getting Started article your body's autonomic nervous system is designed to keep your body in equilibrium and maintain homeostasis with the sympathetic part looking after your response to threats, hence "fight or flight". This is most commonly associated with a physical threat such as immediate danger to help keep us safe so how do emotions and rejection fit in?
In Charles Darwin's seminal book, "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals" emotions are described as evolved adaptations that provide an advantage to survival and reproduction by pre-empting a true threat and helping animals to avoid a threat in the future. Sticking with evolution for a second research from Duke University in 2015 suggests that in the context of the fight or flight response, emotional regulation is used proactively to avoid threats. as humans evolved it became important to form relationships and groups to reproduce and survive, with natural selection favouring those in tribes rather than those alone. Being accepted into a tribe or relationship was vital for survival and rejection had serious, potentially fatal, consequences causing human beings to develop bio-psychological mechanisms to warn of threats to acceptance and belonging and an emotional aversion to rejection.
However in today's society technology has widely expanded communities via social networks and being cast out of a group is less likely to lead to a mortal threat. Equally outliers and individuality are celebrated rather than ostracised and as Stephen Pressfield outlines in his book The War of Art a professional endure adversity and founders and creatives must make sacrifices and cut themselves off from social groups in order to work deeply on projects. So now we understand the science how can we
Loving Failure and Abundance
When something goes wrong it is easy to think "why me?" and adopt a victim-mindset where you feel the universe is acting against you. I'm a huge fan of reframing anything negative to your advantage. And I'm also a huge fan of challenging yourself everyday to do things that are scary and outside of your comfort zone. Having a growth mindset and loving to learn from mistakes is a great way to re-frame rejection in a positive light and take ownership of rejection and failure rather than feeling like a victim. I've probably been rejected more times and in worse ways than anyone reading this article simply because I like doing hard things and pushing myself and understand that failing and being rejected is part of the journey.
In her book Mindset Stanford Psychologist Dr Carol Dweck highlights our ability to challenge ourselves and learn as one of the most important skills we possess as humans. Equally George Leonard in his book Mastery outlines the importance of making mistakes along the way on your journey to becoming a master at any craft.
Now, that being said, rejection still hurts and this is often because of the weight that we ourselves place on the outcome and the associations we make with what we are being denied. My life hack here is one word: abundance.
If you come at anything with a mindset of scarcity you are stacking the odds against yourself and increasing your risk of failure. Raising funding for a startup is the perfect example of this. Raising capital is extremely challenging and multi-faceted and failure can lead to slowed growth or worse the end of the company. Statistics show that founders need to take 40-50 venture capitalist coffee meetings on average to close a round with some going into the hundreds for angel rounds. Assuming you pitch just 40 VCs and get 4 who wish to invest in the round that is a rejection rate of 90%. When raising seed capital for my company Virti I had to be extremely resilient and not take things personally when my company and idea was rejected by investors. What helped me through this was knowing that I had a long list of potential investors to speak with and so no single rejection was ever going to be overly meaningful.
The other concept to understand when it comes to abundance is that there is no "best" option or way to do things. Putting a specific option or outcome on a pedestal when you do have multiple options is just as counter-productive as having a scarcity mindset. Placing more value on one outcome over another is often due to over-thinking or biases such as wanting to impress others or thinking about just how good life would be if you had that one specific thing. It's overanalysis, it's unnecessary and it sucks. I bet you $1000 that in 6-months time that thing that is causing you so much pain right now will seem pretty inconsequential and what you have learned from the experience will help you be more successful in future.
How to learn from failure
“Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever. That surrender, even the smallest act of giving up, stays with me. So when I feel like quitting, I ask myself, which would I rather live with?” ― Lance Armstrong,
It's very easy to feel like a victim if you get rejected or something goes other than the way you wanted it to and it's equally easy to blame everything other than yourself. Taking ownership of the experience while not beating yourself up is the key to learning. With particularly painful experiences remember to take a second and not to dive straight in when things are fresh and still hurt. Take a day, week or a month and then think objectively about what actions you took which you might learn from.
We'll touch on control in a second but it's important to only think about what actions you took during the process and how you might change them in the future. Don't try to second guess the decisions and thought processes of other people which can be multi-faceted and whatever you assume is their reasoning it's unlikely to be constructive.
Once you have thought about or written down your actions and reflected on the experience (writing it like a short story can sometimes be cathartic) think about what you might change but also consider what you think you did well. Remember learning isn't about beating yourself up, be grateful that you took action and went through the experience and congratulate yourself for things you did well.
It can also be helpful to share this reflection with friends. Simply writing down or telling your rejection/failure story to others can suddenly offload it from you and give you a way to vent while receiving honest and supportive feedback. You'll probably have friends you debrief life events with regularly and you want to surround yourself with people who help you to learn and question your actions while also picking you up and moving you forward. In business and sport this is often the job of coaches who analyse the events in detail and then help the individual to understand what they need to work on while not being overly critical. This sharing process also helps provide perspective as you might be so engrossed in your own issue you have lost sight of what is important, your friend or coach might have bigger problems themselves or they might jokingly put you back on track with their own account of a similar experience. Your friend or coach should have as much or more faith in you and your journey than you do and doesn't listen to your excuses but helps you find clarity and puts you back on track stronger than before. Batman has Alfred who nurses him back to health and helps him look inwardly to learn so find your coach.
Once you have this system of taking ownership of the experience, sharing the experience and learning from it to move on to better things you will start to love rejection and failure.
Why control and overanalysis are your worst enemy
As a surgeon I'm all about control. From sterility in the operating room to reduce infections to standardising variability in the way that health professionals train to reduce error, control and being responsible as a leader for maintaining control is an important part of running a high-performing team. Regardless of your job, feeling out of control can make you feel helpless and foster a victim mindset where you feel that everything is happening against you and there is nothing you can do.
Striking a balance and understanding your circle of control is essential for ensuring that you are analysing and learning from rejection and any mistakes while not beating yourself up beyond the realms of how you could have dealt with the situation.
There are many reasons out of your control why you might fail or be rejected. The most chaotic example is probably dating where there can be an unending multitude of factors ranging from timing to how busy someone is to how they communicate to people to having a certain type or belief system you can't possibly influence. All you can do is be the very best that you can be, play your own game, have your own boundaries and focus on what you can control. This is something I also learned from scaling a company. There are certain things that I can do such as instilling a powerful company culture and optimising hiring processes that are scalable and which I can reflect on and improve that will have a huge impact. There are also things outside of my realm of control such as the timing of a speaking event clashing with a board meeting or an employee's internet going down which I can still reflect on but they are lesser learning points and I'm not going to stress about them.
As mentioned when reflecting and analysing your actions it can be difficult to over-analyse and overthink things. Go over things once, read around the area for improvement and do a single discussion with a friend or coach then move on. If you are constantly going back to analyse the situation or wistfully looking at the unanswered text messages from your crush that's not healthy or conducive to learning and is just wallowing in pity. You need to move on.
Why patience and kindness are key to becoming a hero
Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. - Confucius
This takes me to my final point which is about getting back to it, picking yourself up despite however painful the previous experience was and getting yourself back out there. Just like in TopGun when Maverick gets back to flying after Goose dies or in Batman Begins when Bruce gets up after Wayne Manor is burned to the ground the way of the hero is built on getting back up and learning from things that go wrong.
This concept in movies comes from psychology and particularly the work of author Joseph Campbell and his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces which analyses narrative, monomyth and structure in how heroes in fable take the reader on their own journey of improvement.
As we have seen in the previous points a hero must take action and encounter obstacles before internalising the experience and changing themselves and/or others.
Now while this usually takes the hero a few hours in a film or book, for regular humans this is a continuous cycle over your lifetime. You will encounter multiple obstacles and the more you take action despite adversity the more change you will foster and the better you will become. It is therefore important to be consistent, patient and kind to yourself given the length of this journey.
To learn effectively you need to not only reflect but to also apply learning points into practise which means getting back out there and being consistent. Getting back up from failure can seem hard but once you have done it and accepted that it might feel tough for the next few attempts you will get back into the swing of things in no time and the process will help you to find abundance and get over the pain of the original rejection.
It is equally important to have patience and to not throw in the towel. You might have to overcome multiple obstacles and learn many points before you get to a level of mastery that allows you to win consistently. And even then, the master continues to learn.
Most importantly be kind to yourself. As we've now learned yes take action and ownership and learn from rejection but also surround yourself with friends who pick you up and push you forward and remember you can't control everything.
The hero gets beaten up and goes through pain and heartache on their journey but that doesn't mean they never win and it doesn't mean they never take holidays (even Batman gets the girl and chills out at the end of The Dark Knight Trilogy).