Rejection as the Path to Acceptance

I opened the envelope, and the paper inside read: “Your task is to go to the streets and ask fifteen people for a dollar.”

This was followed by a question: “On a 1-10 scale, how comfortable are you with this task?”  I immediately checked 1: extremely uncomfortable.  I was going to teach a class on connecting with strangers in two days, yet I could barely bring myself to talk to fifteen people.  I consider myself a rather confident and adaptable person.  What’s going on?  What was I so scared of?

As a social, interdependent species, humans have historically experienced rejection as an impediment to survival.  Still today, we desperately want to belong.  Whether being picked last in a middle school gym class or being turned down for a second date, experiencing rejection hurts.

But what I have learned in the past two weeks is this: Confronting your fear of rejection is among the most satisfying and liberating things you can do.  And my experience suggests to start with rejection from strangers.

This October, my friend Jessica Semaan and I co-taught a class at Stanford’s called Sharing with Strangers.  Twenty brave students undertook the task of confronting their deep-set fears and assumptions to answer the question: How can I connect more frequently, and more deeply, with perfect strangers?  This post is primarily about their journey, and the transformation I saw in them.

It turns out, when time is spacious and the environment contained, we are very good at connecting with strangers.  Think of an unforgettable conversation on a long plane ride.  Yet in our day-to-day lives, we shield ourselves from others with our earbuds, our back-to-back meetings, and our general distrust of others’ motives.  Why is this person bothering me?  Do they want cash, or a conversion to a new religion?

Our students faced personal fears and social taboos as they first had lunch with a stranger, and then gathered the stories and videos of people they met on the streets of Palo Alto.  Most were greeted with skepticism and flat-out rejection: “No thanks, I’m too busy,” or simply a distrusting glare.  Yet when they were able to break through, eureka!  For both parties, it was the highlight of their day.

After facing rejection head on, our students developed multiple prototypes to confront their internal fears of rejection and increase the odds of acceptance.  They learned a few things.  Mentally preparing yourself for rejection, and reminding yourself it is the situation and not you personally, helps.  Persistence pays off, even if someone says “no” the first time.  Approaching boldly, without giving yourself or others much time to overthink, leads to a more frequent “yes.”  As do actions that shock us out of our normal routines, such as asking for a piggyback ride.  Be humble and non-confrontational in your demeanor, and reveal your motive to disarm others and establish trust.

After their second round of interactions with strangers (with refined techniques), students came back glowing and energized.  They not only overcame their fears of rejection, but on the whole had surprisingly meaningful conversations. Once both parties’ defenses were let down, they were stunned by how much others were willing to share.

I can relate to this myself.  The week after teaching, I attended two conferences.  The rejection risk at conferences is inherent in traditional networking: Is this person worthy of me and my time?  Though when I worked through that fear, and actually approached others as humans (rather than as means to an end), I formed meaningful professional connections rooted in our shared dignity and values.  Serendipity just emerged from there. I also spent time with close friends that week, yet somehow the “high” of connecting with perfect strangers was on different plane.  It is like being seen, understood, and cared for by an outsider somehow makes the whole world a bit kinder and a bit brighter.

When I asked the fifteen strangers for a dollar, I’ll confess that all of them said “no.”  It didn’t feel great, though it didn’t feel nearly as bad as I had imagined.  And the experience was a success: I left much more at peace with hearing “no,” which of course, is the only way I will ever get to a “yes.”