Rejection or Rehearsal

Let’s be honest, being rejected feels awful. And being told that we learn from failure does little to ease the pain.

Especially when we are offering is something we truly care about, rejections can cut deep.

And yet, if we are bringing anything new and worthwhile to the world, we are going to get rejected. A lot.

What to do?

Perhaps a reframing is in order.

The rejections—the responses to what we’ve offered—typically suck up all of our attention when the fact is, these results aren’t what matter.

What matters are the conversations we’ve had.

These are our rehearsals.

A chance to practice our pitch.

A chance to test which stories are memorable enough that they get repeated back to us.

A chance to file the rough edges and let go of the parts that we love(d) but that aren’t needed by our audience.

Until, one day, it really is showtime.

The conversation we’ve been waiting for.

The one that we’ve been lucky enough to be practicing for all this time.

And this time, we nail it, thanks not to all the previous rejections, but thanks to all the chances we’ve had to practice.

I don’t like rejections, but I love dress rehearsals.

How else could I ever be ready for the spotlight?

Getting Into Position

I play a lot of racquet sports, more so in the last year thanks to COVID-19. Not just squash, which was off limits for about 6 months, but tennis, platform tennis and, most recently, pickleball (which is becoming hugely popular because it’s so easy to learn).

In my forever quest for improvement, I pay a lot of attention to my technique. I even got an inexpensive tripod recently and took some videos of my squash matches…and quickly had an existential crisis when I saw that my strokes don’t look like the pros’. So I fussed a bunch over my backswing, my follow-through, the position of my racquet.

Then I discovered that all those things I’d been worrying about pale in comparison to how I move around the court: when I consistently focus on  just one thing – getting to the right spot with enough time to hit the ball – I play my best squash.

It’s not surprising. After 25 years of playing, I know the strokes well enough. I just need to put myself in a position to consistently do what I know how to do.

In the rest of our lives, “in position” isn’t about footwork, but the same principle applies about setting ourselves up to do our best work.

We do this by being grounded, calm, and focused on the person in front of us.

By centering ourselves with an intention of connection and generosity.

By taking a moment before we start to remind ourselves what we’re passionate about.

By letting go of the voices in our heads shouting about our impending failure before we’ve even begun.

And by, each day, allowing ourselves to be well-rested and centered, by taking care of our physical and emotional well-being outside of work so we can be our best selves at work and at home.

Sure, our skills can improve.

But most of the time what will help the most is setting ourselves up, consistently, to do the great work we already know how to do.

At our best, we are truly phenomenal.

Clear Yeses, Clear No’s

Adam Grant wrote the book on giving and taking. In it, he illustrated the power of generosity to create value for everyone – the person asking for help, and the person giving it.

Adam’s book showed that the most successful people in nearly every field are “givers:” their orientation is to create value for others, and they know how to strategically leverage their time and relationships to help those in their network.

The key word in that last sentence is “strategically.”  You don’t need to be a radical giver to cultivate this skill.

Rather, you can easily distinguish yourself by doing two things:

  1. Nudge your orientation and behavior towards more willingness to help than what feels comfortable
  2. Be relentless about saying what you’re going to do and doing it

The first point is the easy one, since it’s mostly about attitude and orientation. Because we often feel strapped for time and attention, we hold a zero-sum attitude towards responding to requests for help. Time spent on these requests, we think, detracts from time spent on “our real work.”  Our best approach, we decide, is to be frugal with the amount of time and effort we devote to others. This analysis is flawed: generously supporting others is value adding, not zero sum, as long as we learn to do it strategically.

This gets to the second point. As I’ve progressed in my career, my day-to-day orientation is increasingly outward: I spend the majority of my time either with customers, potential customers or investors, often forging new relationships (and often, in the last year, remotely). What continues to strike me is how easy is it is for people to distinguish themselves by clearly saying what they will, and won’t, do and then consistently doing what they said.

I suspect that folks are challenged by a combination of:

  • Not wanting to share that they don’t have decision-making authority
  • Wanting to please the person they’re talking to by saying “yes” to more than they can commit to
  • Getting caught up in the moment and over-committing

The end result of these largely well-intentioned missteps is a waterfall of unfilled promises. This, in turn, leads to time wasted on both sides sifting through a lot of chaff to get to a small bit of wheat.

Conversely, the person who clearly says, “Yes, I can do these two things, but I can’t do these other three,” and who then does those two things…? She distinguishes herself by her upfront clarity and the simple act of consistent follow through.

It turns out that saying what you will and won’t do, and then doing exactly what you said you’d do, is one of the easiest ways to stand out from the crowd.

 

Euonymus Resilience

Three years ago, we did some work in the garden behind our house to address some drainage issues. This included moving a large, healthy green spire euonymus to an open corner to provide a bit of screening.

The gardener told us that the eunomyus is a resilient plant and it would transplant well.

In the first year, it lost half of its leaves, and looked sickly all spring, summer and fall.

In the second year, it was shedding fewer leaves, but it still looked like it wasn’t going to make it.

And this spring, it’s turned the corner. It’s not as big as it used to be, but it’s clearly strong and healthy again, the leaves are a deep green and shiny, and the plant looks healthy. Here it is.

We often take “resilience” to mean that we will be unaffected by hard things, but that’s not how it works.

Resilience is the ability to withstand hard things, to suffer and experience damage, and to still manage to come out the other side intact.

We are all, the world over, in the midst of living through a very hard, tragic thing. We have all suffered and we will all continue to suffer.

That we suffer does not mean that we are not strong, that we are not resilient.

We are all these things and more, and we have what it takes to get through this.

Sales Velocity and Momentum

Velocity and momentum are both essential in sales.

When you are selling anything, you, by definition, have a greater sense of urgency than the person on the other end of the line: you are there to solve their problem today, while they are often willing to wait until tomorrow (because doing something now means paying a known financial or emotional cost today for an uncertain benefit.)

For this reason, if you are the person selling, velocity is your friend. In a fight for someone’s fleeting attention, being exceptionally quick, responsive, generous and available is how you capitalize on any positive movement in your direction. Being quick is a free opportunity to give your prospect a glimpse of what it will be like to work with you: “She’s so on top of things, she’s attentive, knows her stuff and moves quickly” is a desired reaction no matter what your product or industry.

While velocity is your ally at all stages of the sales cycle, momentum is particularly important when you’ve gotten your first verbal “yes.”

Imagine you’ve just had a great sales call: you’ve accompanied your prospect through their doubts and helped them push through their natural inertia to get to a “yes.”

At this moment, it’s essential to keep momentum by getting them everything they need to cement that yes—the proverbial dotted line to sign on. Move too slowly, and time’s passage is your enemy, pulling them back from their out-on-a-limb ‘yes’ to the much more comfortable ‘maybe.’

We often think that selling is about convincing people that what we have on offer is worth buying.

That’s just the starting point.

What selling is really about is turning a positive inclination to positive action.

For that, close to the finish line is not good enough.

It’s your job to take all the necessary steps to get your prospect across that line.

Bothered

When a client reaches out to tell you something’s wrong, you should feel something. It should bother you.

When we are told something’s gone wrong, there’s a leaning in that happens, a focus and attention on what’s been raised as well as a response at an emotional level – not of fear, but of heightened awareness and speed.

Think of all the time and effort that’s gone in to bringing this customer to this point: getting to know them, explaining your product, getting them to commit, working together with them for months or even years.

All of that is on the line at this moment.

The best part is, most organizations do a fabulously poor job of addressing concerns when customers raise them.

That means it’s easy distinguish yourselves from nearly everyone by responding well, quickly, and eagerly.

This comes in the form of an immediate (minutes, maybe hours at most) acknowledgement that you’ve receive their message, understand they are having a problem, and are working on resolving their issue.

It requires you to own the problem, by restating in your own words what they’ve said (so they know you’ve heard them) and telling them how seriously you take it.

And, you have to simultaneously escalate the problem so it moves as quickly as possible through your system.

Finally, it’s your job to resolve the problem with generosity, coupled with expressing gratitude to them for bringing it up.

We need to take all of our work personally, and that comes to the fore when a customer takes the time to knock on our door to say “hey, this isn’t quite right.”

Feel that moment in your gut and move accordingly.

Shaping the Path

In my first job out of business school, I was the most junior person in IBM’s Corporate Citizenship team. Stan Litow, the hard-charging ex-Deputy Chancellor of the NYC Schools, ran the group and was my boss’s boss.

Occasionally, I got to work directly with Stan, and “work” often meant doing the background research and preparing a draft document or an email for him to send out.

My barometer of success was simple. I tracked:

  1. The speed with which things I produced went out the door.
  2. The difference between what I produced and what finally got sent by Stan.

Naturally, the two were correlated: the closer I got to the target, the faster the end product was sent out.

I came to discover that it wasn’t just getting the content right that mattered. It also helped tremendously if I made it as easy as possible to turn my draft into the final product. This meant things like:

  • Drafting the outgoing email to accompany a file
  • Writing that email to make it sound the way Stan sounded
  • Succinctly explaining to Stan the context behind what I’d done and the recipient
  • Being completely clear what actions needed to be taken

While at the time I was enabling my boss’s boss, these behaviors continue to inform my actions to this day.

To be influential and drive action, part of our work is to make these actions as easy as possible – called “shaping the path” by behavioral economist Jonathan Haidt (Chip and Dan Heath also talk about this a lot in Switch). Shaping the path is the act of removing all friction between a person and the action you want them to take: giving students a printed map if you want them to go to a dorm and get a vaccine, for example, increases the number of students who get the shot.

Once you start paying attention to shaping the path, it’s addictive, especially in written communication (email/Slack).

You’re shaping the path every time you:

  • (email) Write a good self-contained forwardable email when you’re networking
  • (email) In an email, summarize your headlines in one sentence rather than assume that everyone will read the attachment
  • (email/Slack) Transform a paragraph into a numbered or bulleted list that is easy to digest
  • (Slack) Include a clickable link to a file to a colleague rather than a filepath
  • Encourage your team to take a specific action, and then model that action in verbal or written form
  • Use Docusign
  • Turn your Word Doc contract into an online Terms of Service
  • (email/Slack) Put all the information everyone needs in one place, more than once (as in, even after everyone has the calendar invite: “here are the materials for our meeting next Thursday from 10:00 to 11:00 am Eastern time and here’s the Zoom link”)
  • (email) Change the email subject line of an email to make it clearer what it’s about.
  • Are hyper-specific about what would be most helpful, or how you can help, and ask for just that (size of the action, amount of time) and nothing more.

Making everything a little easier for the people you interact with is a sign of both empathy and respect. It shows that you know how busy they are, and that you recognize how much time and energy it takes to task switch.

As a bonus, it’s more likely that people will do the things you’d like them to do and that they will feel great about it, because it was so easy for them.

Time is On Your Side

Making a good loaf of sourdough bread takes about 24 hours. There’s no way to rush it, but the good news is most of the work happens by itself.

The ingredients couldn’t be simpler: flour, water, sourdough starter, and salt. You make it like this:

At about 8am, you feed your starter with 75g of flour and 75g of water. This takes about a minute, maybe two.

At noon, you mix together your flour (1kg) and water (770g) by hand. This might take five minutes.

An hour after that, you add starter (150g) and salt (30g) and mix again. Another 3-5 minutes.

Then, every half an hour for the next three hours, you stretch and fold the dough a few times. Call that two minutes each half hour plus an extra minute each time to wash your hands.

Then you let the dough rest for five hours (rest = do nothing), and then you shape the dough. Shaping takes 10 to 15 minutes assuming you want a clean counter at the end.

Finally, you put it in your refrigerator to proof overnight.

The next morning, at around 8am again, you bake the bread. This requires 10 total minutes of activity and a bit of hovering (500 degree oven preheating for 45 minutes, then 20 minutes baking covered and 25 more uncovered).

At the end, you have hot, delicious, fresh bread. I always make two loaves and the first one is gone, every time, within an hour.

The point, besides demystifying sourdough, is this.

So much of the important work we do with people involves a bit of effort and attention up front and then letting the things we’ve set in motion—ideas, suggestions, words of support, challenges—evolve over time. Our job is to remain present and available, but we don’t have to do all the work.

The two mistakes to avoid are:

  1. Putting off having that first, foundational conversation, because then we lose the power of time being on our side.
  2. Thinking that the entire problem needs to be solved, today, by us, right now. More often than not, for important things, we can’t force it. Ideas need to take on a life of their own. People need time to work through their reactions, emotions and fears. Important things take time to process. Plans have dependencies and interconnections.

Great outcomes happen when we set things in motion early, remain available and present when needed, and let things run their course (with a few adjustments, based on our care and our experience, by us when needed). Nature, and time, are on our side.

And, for those who are just here for the sourdough, all I did to learn how to make amazing bread was to follow every instruction in this one video, 15 Mistakes Most Beginner Sourdough Bakers Make, from Mike Greenfield at Pro Home Cooks.

 

What Wins Me Over

Your enthusiasm is infectious.

Not your smarts.

Not your plan.

Not how prepared you are.

Not the product or the problem it might solve for me.

When I see how much you care, how excited you are, I can’t help but feel the same thing.

That’s what matters most.

We Work to Avoid the Work

We stumble across this all the time, when we sheepishly discover that a task we’d been putting off for days or weeks takes us just 5 or 10 minutes to complete.

“That wasn’t a big deal at all.”

Think of the mental calisthenics we regularly engage in to put off certain tasks: we schedule reminders, create lists, tell others that we are definitely going to get it done…next Thursday. This time and effort can end up dwarfing the task itself.

We tell ourselves that what’s going on is scarcity of time. Lacking time right now, it’s only logical that we spend a little time today to neatly place this task sometime in the future. But that’s just a smokescreen.

What’s really going on is a choice to spent time and effort today to gain emotional comfort today: “I’m willing do some work now in order to postpone something that I believe will be emotionally challenging now.”

Take some time to observe which sorts of tasks you put off and why: writing the first paragraph on a proverbial blank sheet of paper; reaching out to a new person; calling someone you’ve been thinking about a lot lately; having a difficult conversation about something that just happened; beginning a tough workout or a meditation.

At the heart of our perpetual procrastination is our over-estimation of the emotional labor a task will require and our willingness to create new work that enables us to  avoid shifting gears from a state that is busy with low emotional effort (read: comfortable) to one that requires greater emotional effort.

The ultimate irony is that most of the things we’re putting off aren’t all that bad, and time and again, if we just start, we find ourselves wondering what we were so worried about in the first place.

The only antidote is the practice of regularly doing uncomfortable-feeling things, and choosing to observe the repetitive cycle of: self-dialogue—resistance—starting—doing—relief. Through repetition we learn that our dramatic self-dialogue both serves no purpose and contains no meaningful information about the task that lies ahead.

Most important, what we find time and again is that our fear evaporates the instant we start doing the work: the act of crossing the threshold from anticipation to action causes fear’s  grip to loosen until, in the blink of an eye, we are free.