Jun 22 • 33M

The Gift of Rejection (Issue #389)

A strong No is better than a weak Yes

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Simu Liu - Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Simu Liu

Strike 1!

“Facebook turned me down. It was a great opportunity to connect with some fantastic people. Looking forward to life's next adventure.”

— Brian Acton

Strike 2!

“Got denied by Twitter HQ. That's ok. Would have been a long commute.”

— Brian Acton

Most people would experience back-to-back job interview rejections like that and feel pretty discouraged. Who knows? Maybe Brian felt pretty down on those days.

However, those rejections were an incredible gift. Brian left his engineering job at Yahoo earlier in 2009 and interviewed with Twitter and Facebook, but both companies rejected him. So, he decided to partner with Jan Koum to start WhatsApp.

Five years later, Facebook agreed to acquire WhatsApp for $16B. Yes, $16 billion with a B. The deal left Brian worth over $3B. Not bad for someone who failed his job interview at Facebook five years earlier, huh?

So, Brian had missed the opportunity to join Facebook as an engineer and make a few million dollars. Heck, the stock may have made him worth tens of millions later. Ok, let’s be even more generous. Hundreds of millions.

However, the gift of their rejection was worth so much more. Billions more. I’m guessing that Brian looks back on that job interview and thanks his lucky stars that it didn’t work out.

There are so many more stories like this about the silver lining of rejection. For example:

  • Whitney Wolfe Herd was a co-founder of Tinder, but faced sexual harassment in the company and filed a lawsuit. She left Tinder in 2014, founded Bumble, and took the company public in 2021. She’s currently worth $740M.

  • Ten years ago, Simu Liu got laid off as an accountant by the consulting firm Deloitte. However, it was one of the best things that happened to him because it forced him to invest in his acting career. Now, you probably know him as the star of the Marvel movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

As painful as rejection and failure might feel in the moment, sometimes that becomes a positive turning point. Being forced out of a comfortable situation and knocked off a predictable path may very well challenge you to pursue something even better for your life and career.


Bad stuff happens

“If at first you don’t succeed, you're in luck. Effortless excellence is a lousy teacher and a fickle friend.”
— Adam Grant

Some really bad stuff is happening right now. 

You may be experiencing some of this. Or, you’ve had some of these bad experiences in the past. We all also know that we will experience some sort of failure or rejection in the future. It’s an inevitable side effect of being human.

I've taken a few hard knocks myself over the years. At the time, they felt like the end of the world. 

  • I knew that a leadership and organizational change had essentially ended my internal career at one company. 

  • I was once laid off shortly after a startup acquisition. 

  • A massive change in strategy and leadership at another company meant that my future there was pretty much over. 

Hey, sh*t happens. In the corporate world, it happens often. You have to get used to it and roll with the punches. 

When your professional future is disrupted, don't wallow in despair and feel sad about what you lost. Instead, see it as an opportunity to challenge your assumptions about who you are and what you want for your life. 

When you feel you have nothing to lose, you can take a risk and fail forward. Reach for something bigger and more audacious. 

Hell, if it helps, use your anger to fuel your comeback and prove people wrong. Nothing will upset your "haters" more than your success and happiness. 


A weak Yes is the kiss of death

“Most humans, in varying degrees, are already dead. In one way or another they have lost their dreams, their ambitions, their desire for a better life. They have surrendered their fight for self-esteem and they have compromised their great potential. They have settled for a life of mediocrity, days of despair and nights of tears.”

— Og Mandino

I would rather hear a firm Yes or No than a Maybe. I hate maybes.

  • Maybe next time

  • Maybe next year

  • Maybe if you ask me again later 

  • Maybe if things change 

A weak Yes isn’t much better. It feels like a consolation prize.

  • “You weren’t our first choice. But the other candidate turned our offer down, so now we’d like to make you an offer!”

  • “You’re meeting expectations. Keep up the great work!”

  • “No one else is available, so we’re putting you on the project.”

Working in a job where you’re not appreciated or challenged is a weak Yes. You can continue in that cruise control mode for years. Some people spend their entire career in a company like that. I guess that’s ok if a job is just a job for someone. But, if you’re ambitious and want more for your career, you have to move up or on.

However, change is hard and the unknown can be a bit scary. It’s not easy to willingly quit a solid job and give up a steady paycheck. Sometimes people need a push out of the warm nest. That “push” may come in the form of a layoff, for example. But, if and when it happens, it’s time to seize the moment to do something greater with your career and life.


How to turn rejection into an opportunity

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”
— Henry Ford

Every failure is a learning opportunity. Every rejection is your chance to challenge yourself to reach for something even greater. Don’t let it push you into a position of fear and doubt. Don’t be tempted to play safer and smaller.

Perhaps I have a strange reaction to failure and rejection, but I think it has served me well. When it happens, I get a feeling of, “What have I got to lose? If I’m going to fail, I’d rather fail while trying to do something even bigger and more audacious.”

Here are a few steps I recommend when you experience rejection. This process can help you transform failure into a launchpad for your next success.

1. Recover

Take some time to grieve the loss, recover, and process what happened. We aren’t machines. Rejection hurts. Failure isn’t fun.

However, you can also work on your mindset and how you view failure. The only people who never experience the pain of rejection and failure are those who never try. They play it safe, but they don’t achieve great things in their lives.

Chasing what you want requires risk. If you want to accomplish amazing things, you have to take a swing — multiple swings — and accept that failure is part of the process. Use it to get better and learn how to improve your strategy and execution.

2. Learn

What can you learn from what happened? Every failure and setback is an opportunity to reevaluate your strategy. Was your approach sound or not? Do you need to make some changes?

Sometimes your strategy was solid, but your execution was flawed. If so, understand what went wrong and what needs to change next time.

We all fail, but not everyone learns from their failures. Make sure you do so you can improve your odds of success later.

3. Retarget

What’s your new target? After a failure or rejection, you may need to identify a new goal. What you wanted may never work out. Or, you may have another shot later, but you still need a win now.

Of course, this depends on what you were trying to accomplish and the nature of your failure or rejection. Your original goal may still be valid, but you need to adjust your plan to reach it.

4. Plan

Take what you learned in step 2 and use it to tune your strategy. It might be time to try a different approach. Update your plan to execute that strategy and move forward.

Sometimes, we fail because we failed to plan in the first place. If that was the case, now is the time to create a plan to reach your goal vs. shooting from the hip again. If it’s important to you, it’s worth taking the time to prepare well.

5. Prepare

Failure taught you a lesson, so now you can better prepare for the next opportunity. When we see talented people succeed, they sometimes make it all seem so effortless. We think, “It must be nice!”

However, almost every successful person you see worked harder, failed more often, and kept pushing forward more than you’ll ever know. Remember, you’re seeing people’s public lives, not their private struggles.

Strong preparation increases your odds of success. But it also serves a secondary purpose. When you know you gave something your all, you will feel proud of yourself no matter what the outcome is vs. feeling bad and blaming yourself for not trying hard enough.

6. Rebuild

Believe me, I know how much rejection and failure can do a number on your confidence. After one of my worst failures, I doubted myself for months and it killed any chance I had of securing a new win.

It took me a long time to get my mojo back and recover my full confidence. But I finally did, and it made all the difference in the world.

So, do whatever it takes to rebuild and boost your confidence. Surround yourself with people who believe in you. Invest in your health and wellness. Take a vacation, clear your head, and come back stronger.

So much of what we achieve in life is due to having the confidence to pursue it.

7. Conquer

It will happen eventually. You will conquer that next challenge.

Grit and determination matter more than people think. Persistence pays off.

Here is what I think you’ll discover: There’s a silver lining to failure and rejection. Losing something or not getting what you thought you wanted can often be a blessing in disguise. Something better is waiting for you!


Turn failure into fuel

“Success is your ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”
— Winston Churchill

Every time I failed in life, something better came along. Every time someone rejected me, I ended up in a better place.

Ok, here’s a question. Did I actually end up in a better place after rejection and failure or do I only perceive that things turned out for the better?

The answer is that it doesn’t matter. Perception is reality. What I think and how I feel is all that matters. And, I feel damn good about how my career and life have turned out.

Maybe all I did was turn lemons into lemonade. But I know that I’m happier, healthier, and more fulfilled than I was before. So, I’ll drink that lemonade every day and smile.

I can tell you I’ve witnessed the same with many of my clients. They sometimes end up in an unpleasant situation at work, things go south, and they feel like it’s the end of the world. Maybe they’re still going to work every day, but they’re miserable. Or maybe they eventually get caught up in a layoff, get fired, or quit and walk away.

But we find a way out of that terrible situation and transform the darkness into light. They fail forward and end up in a much better place. One client recently experienced that and landed an amazing job that almost doubled his compensation. I’d say that’s a pretty nice outcome after feeling burned by a temporary rejection!

So, the next time you’re facing failure or stinging from rejection, I want you to take a moment and remember these stories. Not only is there a light at the end of the tunnel, but your future may also be even brighter because of that failure and rejection!

Sometimes we need to be forced out of our comfort zone and reminded of what we really want most for our lives. It can ignite your bravery and passion to pursue what you’ve always dreamed of doing.

Use failure to fuel your drive forward into something greater!

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Larry Cornett is a leadership coach and business advisor who hosts a private mastermind community for ambitious professionals with weekly challenges, office hours, and confidential support. If you’re interested in starting your own business or side hustle someday (or accelerating an existing one), check out his “Employee to Solopreneur” course (launching later this year).

Larry lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, and a gigantic Great Dane. He does his best to share advice to help others take complete control of their work and life. He’s also on Twitter @cornett.