I love listening to TED talks. I especially love searching topics I’m pretty sure none of those dizzyingly fabulous, uniformly successful speakers have anything to say about. So the other day I caught myself searching “Failure.” A taboo subject in America in general, the land of the overnight and over-the- moon success story, the place where super models get spotted on street corners and anyone can get famous for doing nothing on reality TV.
To my delight, the first and best talk that came up was Jia Jiang’s “100 Days of Rejection.” Hitting 30, full of ambition with nothing to show for it, Jiang took on Canadian psychologist Jason Comely’s Rejection Therapy. The basic idea is to do one thing each day that you’re pretty sure will lead to rejection. Making this a habit is supposed to dispel old fears of asking for things you really want. Make you bold. Open doors. Grow your business. Find you a husband or wife. Expand your life.
Jiang set to work outlining 100 days of rejectables, from the mundane (borrow $100 from a stranger) to the logical (sleep at Mattress Firm) to the ridiculous (dryclean my tire), posting many of the results on YouTube and other social media. In the end, Jiang’s trial was a resounding success! He ended up buying the Rejection Therapy copyright, writing a book about it, and becoming something of a rejection guru (hence is appearance on the TED stage).
Something in all of this hit home. First, I realized that it’s not failure I fear as much as rejection. Failures, while never joyful can be private, even secret. Rejections are by definition social, interpersonal, out there. You are at the mercy of other people’s whims, tastes, preferences, moods, mindsets, prejudices, worldviews—people can say “no” for a whole host of reasons. And often you will never know the reason, which can all too easily lead you to give up entirely, to feel like a loser, or both. Plus they get to watch you experiencing that pain. Things can easily turn into a power play. After all, you’re the supplicant.
I’m a lifelong people pleaser. I’m constantly, even reflexively, adapting what I do and say, even how I stand and move, based on the feedback loop I’m getting from you. This is no mere habit; it’s a survival strategy I drummed up in a fractious childhood household. Keeping other people happy has kept me alive. But trying to please others has also drastically limited the things I’m willing to try out on the world. I’ve stayed small and safe, while quietly, internally brimming with desires and ambitions I’ll never fulfill if I keep on like this.
So six days ago I said “yes” to Jiang’s rejection challenge. I started right in, improvising as I went. I’m now mapping out my larger list of 100 tasks, as I’m realizing that some days I just lack the time, creativity, or spunk to come up with something new. I need a backlog of material to resort to.
And just to make sure I really out myself, I’ll be sharing my results with you daily. And I’ll keep a running tally of rejections vs acceptances to keep me grounded in reality. So, to summarize what’s gone down so far:
1. DAY ONE: Ask for an off-season frozen-yogurt discount card at Scoop du Jour. I go to this place for an afternoon pick-me- up every day I’m in East Hampton. It’s my Starbucks. Most people don’t want frozen desserts in freezing weather. Most people don’t want to be in a beach town in freezing weather. I’m pretty sure I’m the only person they turn that machine on for every morning between October and May. So I asked. Counter lady said sorry, not her call, she’s not the owner, and besides, 2 or 3 people do come in every day. Not swayed by my argument that a nearby eatery offers coffee discount cards and it’s a great incentive. Gut reaction: they know I’m already hooked and will come again, discount or not. (Result: Rejection)
2. DAY TWO St. Patrick’s Day: Wear my “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” headdress and ask 5 strangers to kiss me. I worked hard to get dual U.S./Irish citizenship, so this is a big day on my calendar. Here’s how it went:
1. Hampton Bagels, East Hampton: Latina cashier, herself dressed in green with green earrings and selling green bagels, cheerfully leaned across the counter and gave me a peck on the cheek.
2. Hampton Bagels blue-collar customer: clearly in a hurry, I had to block this guy’s path to get him to notice me. He drew a blank when I asked for a kiss, until I pointed to my headband. He smiled, kissed my cheek, and I moved aside so he could get on with his day.
3. CVS: Slim pickings (it’s only 7:30am). Stop a couple in the cosmetics isle. She demurs (my first rejection); he obliges as they whisk quickly away. Think they sense something’s not quite right about all this.
4. Main Street sidewalk, East Hampton: 2 people walking rescue dogs with little jackets stating, “Adopt me.” Ask them if I can have their dogs kiss me. We try. No interest. My first rejection. The man consoles me, “Maybe if you had some food on your face . . . .” The lady feels so bad she kisses me.
5. Same location. See a cute guy in dark shades slip out of sports car and head across the sidewalk. Summon my courage. “Sure, “ he replies, whipping off his sunglasses and planting a kiss on my cheek.
Done for the day! (5 Acceptances/3 Rejections (2 dogs + 1 human))
3. DAY THREE: Ask my students to rate my yoga class (anonymously) on a scale of 1-10, 1 being total waste of time, 10 being beyond my wildest dreams. Success: everyone participates, and my scores range from 6 to 10.
4. DAY FOUR: Part One: Ask men hanging out by train station hoping for day work to lend me $5. One white guy and one Latino both say no. White guy starts a ramble on about why he’s there despite having been raised in a good family. Latino just says he doesn’t have any money.
Part Two: offer to give same $5. White guy accepts, though by now I’ve tuned out his ramble on. Latino will not accept, even though I keep trying. His English isn’t great, but he manages to convey that he’d be happy to work for me but he won’t take handouts. (Acceptance/Rejection)
5. DAY FIVE: Ask someone to sing me “Happy Birthday” (It’s not my birthday). Spot three schoolgirls in uniforms on Upper East Side, chatting and playing with their phones. They immediately agree and burst into an enthusiastic chorus. When they get to the line “Happy Birthday dear . . .” they realize they don’t know my name, and just substitute “Person.” (Acceptance)
6. DAY SIX: Ask a private client to write a testimonial about how much he enjoyed my yoga retreats. He agrees, but I haven’t received it yet. (Pending)
7. DAY SEVEN: Ask a stranger for a compliment. Spot a guy on Christopher Street raising money for Save the Children. He willingly obliges, looks me up and down once or twice, and declares, “Your energy is very calm.” Then we get down to business: he spends the next half hour trying to get me to sponsor a child. I finally refuse. (1 Acceptance for me; 1 Rejection for him.)
8. DAY EIGHT: Ask for change from my coffee (75 cents) all in pennies. After some confusion, I receive 2 quarters and 25 pennies. (1/2 Acceptance/1/2 Confusion.).
9. DAY NINE: Email a fancy yoga company for which I am already a “yoga ambassador” and request free clothing (their welcome letter said that they sometimes send out samples). Wait 24 hours. Receive am email saying, “Sorry, we are already maxed out” on giveaways. I respond with a photo of me dressed more like a homeless person than a yoga teacher. Wonder if they’ll boot me off the program. (1 Rejection)
10. DAY TEN: Ask 5 people if I can take a photo of me with them and try to get 5 in one hour. Piece of cake. Walk into Citarella at lunchtime on a Saturday. Get photos with two different babies, the guy in charge of flowers, and my favorite man in the produce aisle. He asks my full name, I get his, and we start chatting about his Italian background and how he wants to visit Israel. He’s Catholic, and “that’s where it all began.” Not even sure how we got there. Realizing asking for things often involves sharing and listening. One to go. I’m cold and hungry. Spot a hefty lady in high-end rags crossing Newtown Lane. Figure since she’s done up, she’ll welcome a photo. But think I inadvertently offend her when I say, “I love your outfit—it’s so not East Hampton!” When her face falls, I stumble on, “ . . . in a good way!” “This is all expensive stuff! “ she declares. “I know, I know,” I reassure her, “It’s the way you put it all together." Shoot her solo first as there’s no way we can fit us both plus the full outfit into a selfie. Timing: Over and done in 22 minutes (5 Acceptances; 0 Rejections, though I think I kinda cheated with the babies, and I definitely avoided more than a couple of people who looked unfriendly.)
Deep Thought: So far, it looks like people are more willing to oblige when it’s free. In other words, they’ll do questionable things but not if it costs them $$.