Would you ask a stranger for $100? What about asking to fly a plane or drive a police car? Jia Jiang did it all and lived to tell the tale.
For someone who talks about the topic of failure and rejection, entrepreneur Jia Jiang sure knows a lot about success. His popular TEDx talk has garnered more than 3 million views. He’s a best-selling author and blogger and the CEO of his own company, Wuju Learning. And for a brief hour, he was the world’s first and only Starbucks greeter.
However, Jiang’s life didn’t always look so rosy. His fear of being rejected started at age six when he felt the deep impact of being excluded by classmates at school. He eventually used this fear to become the self-proclaimed “rejection guy,” shaping a story that he shared with honesty and a stand-up comedian’s sense of humor and timing with Wisconsin MBA students as part of the Wisconsin School of Business’s M. Keith Weikel Speaker Series.
Raised in Beijing, Jiang’s teenage dream was to become a “Chinese version” of the next Bill Gates. But as he got older, the path to global business domination started to seem less clear—and as a high school exchange student in the 600-person rural town of Simpson, Louisiana, a lot less glamorous.
When Jiang arrived at age 30 with no company of his own, a more conventional life than he had planned, and a rejection from a major potential investor for his startup, he decided to face his fears head on. Determined to conquer his aversion to rejection, he stumbled across a website called rejectiontherapy.com, which advocated a program to overcome fear by obtaining 30 rejections in 30 days. Jiang decided to up the ante: he’d aim for 100 rejections in 100 days, and document it all on video to hold himself accountable.
In less capable hands, Jiang’s rejection experiment might have had more of a prank-like feel. But Jiang’s drive to better himself is genuine, as is his desire to help others understand why people say “no” and why we shouldn’t be cowed by that reaction.
Jiang’s journey through 100 days of rejection revealed four major takeaways—lessons for Wisconsin MBA students, and indeed any audience, to consider in raising their own rejection threshold.
Choose your co-pilot with care. When Jiang was turned down by the potential investor, he wanted to curb his entrepreneurial ambitions, but his wife wouldn’t let him quit.
“She was like this angry quarterback, grabbing my face mask and screaming at me to keep going,” he says.
Your encourager doesn’t need to be a spouse or even someone with business expertise. It just needs to be someone who understands your vision, can serve as a sounding board, shore you up when you need it most, and tell you the truth even if it makes you uncomfortable.
Rejection is a numbers game. Much to his surprise, Jiang found his bizarre requests were granted on a pretty regular basis. Rejection is a numbers game, says Jiang, and it’s also an opinion. You’ll eventually get to a “yes” if you talk to enough people, because what one person dislikes, another might love. Jiang’s first request was to borrow $100 from a stranger, which was promptly denied. But he kept making asks—everything from driving a police car to flying a gyroplane, two requests that were both permitted. In another granted request, Jiang walked into a Krispy Kreme and asked the employee, Jackie, to replicate the Olympic rings in donuts. The request was so unusual and Jackie’s positive response so unexpected, that the video of this encounter went viral and launched Jiang’s rejection project into the public eye.
Don’t run, ask “why?” Jiang’s initial response was to flee after being rejected, but he pushed himself to stay engaged and to ask people why they said no. The effect was profound. By leaning in to the rejection, he found that not only did it happen less often, but sometimes he got a referral that would lead to a yes. When Jiang asked a homeowner why he was denied a request to plant a flower in the man’s backyard, the homeowner said it was because his dog would dig it up. But then he referred Jiang to a flower-loving neighbor who welcomed the request—an outcome that came only because Jiang stayed engaged.
Give voice to doubt. Through his 100-day experiment, Jiang learned that preempting another person’s doubts about you can ward off rejection. When Jiang asked a Starbucks manager if he could be a greeter for the store, he noticed the barista hesitated. Jiang took advantage of the moment, asking if it was a weird request. The manager acknowledged the weirdness, and with this acknowledgement came acquiescence.
“He said it almost as if he was putting all the doubt he had on the floor,” Jiang recalls. “His whole demeanor changed. He said, ‘Okay, I can let you do this, but don’t be too weird.’”
Above all, Jiang says, it’s about two simple words: just ask. He’s met countless people along the way who told him how his rejection journey inspired them to identify what they want and ask for it, ultimately changing their lives for the better.
“The reason we don’t ask for things is because we think rejection is so terrible, so negative. We tell ourselves every day that by avoiding the negative, we’re achieving the positive. But that’s a lie. We’re rejecting ourselves by default. No matter what happens, don’t reject yourself. Let the world reject you, but don’t reject yourself.”