Hiring and Growth

To Push Through Rejection, Adam Grant Says Start Thinking About It Like This

Jeff Haden Inc. columnist and small business management expert 
frustrated business man surrounded by crumpled papers

Dealing with rejection comes with the small business territory. A customer decides not to accept your proposal. A distributor decides not to stock your products. An investor decides not to provide a desperately-needed infusion of capital.

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For most entrepreneurs, hearing the word “yes” is definitely the exception, not the rule. 

That’s why the ability to stay the course in response to failure, adversity, and rejection is such an important key to small business success. Working hard, sticking to your long-term goals… persistence and perseverance matter.

Yet no matter how important it might be to your success, dealing with rejection isn’t easy.

Just ask Adam Grant, the Wharton professor, bestselling author, and host of the wildly popular TED podcast “WorkLife with Adam Grant.” 

In a recently authored article on rejection for the New York Times, he states that the brain scans of people who get rejected show a similar physiological response to processing physical pain. 

Yep: Getting rejected actually hurts—and even moreso when your livelihood is at stake.

Fortunately, Grant also says it’s possible to learn how to cope with rejection and keep forging ahead. He writes:

“The good news is that we can learn to take rejection in stride. Take salespeople: They get rejected constantly, and psychologists find that the ones who stick with it are the ones who learn not to take it personally.”


So how can we learn to push through rejection? Here are Grant’s top tips.

“It’s not me, it’s us.”

One way to cope with rejection is to shift the “blame” to the other person. A conference decides not to book me as the keynote speaker? They’re making a mistake; I’m awesome. My publisher turns down my idea for my next book? They’re making a big mistake; the theme is brilliant. 

But while shifting the blame to the other person may help me feel better in the short term, it’s a poor way to deal with rejection. My presentation may be great… but not for that audience. My idea for my book may be great… but the timing may be all wrong. As Grant says, it’s not just them. And it’s not just me. 

It’s us. 

In all likelihood, we weren’t a good fit for each other. But that doesn’t mean we can’t later be a good fit.

Blame rejection on the relationship instead of only on the person (either you or the other party), and you’re much more likely to keep trying—and to keep getting better so that next time the answer will hopefully be, “Yes.”

As Abraham Lincoln said, “I do not like that man. I need to get to know him better.” Instead of agonizing over what you might have done wrong, see a misfit as an opportunity to find ways you can fit.

Or to explore other opportunities where you will.

“And it’s definitely not the whole me.”

Another approach to dealing with rejection that Grant recommends is to remember that failure in one aspect of your life in no way reflects upon your overall self-worth. 

Maybe you didn’t land the sale. But that doesn’t mean the entire you—the employer, the significant other, the friend, the leader and innovator and professional—was rejected. Your proposal was rejected. And that stinks. 

But you don’t stink.

Think about it this way: Say one of your employees makes a huge mistake. It would be easy to forever view that employee through the perspective of that mistake.

But you don’t, because you know one mistake or weakness is just one part of the whole person.

Give yourself the same latitude. Reflect on your overall self-worth before you walk into a room and put your ego on the line. You wouldn’t let one success define you—so don’t let one failure define you, either.

Rejection can be an opportunity

We all try to move on and learn from our mistakes. But sometimes you shouldn’t move on. At least not yet.

When I asked Grant for an example of a person who had worked through rejection, he provided one—but with a twist.

He shared the example of Sarah Robb O’Hagan, a fellow author and entrepreneur. Her dream was to work at Air New Zealand, so she applied for a marketing internship. She didn’t score high enough on the entrance tests they required and was rejected.

“But Sarah refused to take no for an answer,” Grant says. ”She launched a marketing campaign to get hired. It started when she called the recruiter and asked, ‘Could I come and spend just 15 minutes talking to you, so I could learn from why I was not selected?’ She got the meeting, did a lot of research on where she could add value, and managed to convince the recruiter to give her an interview with the hiring manager.”

As a result, even though the six available spots had already been filled, they created a seventh spot for O’Hagan. She worked with them for the following six years and went on to become a marketing executive at Virgin and Nike, the president of Gatorade and Equinox, and the CEO of Flywheel.

“So often, we take a rejection as a sign that the door has been slammed and locked. But in some cases, it’s been left ajar. And by failing to give it a little push, we shut it on ourselves,” says Grant.

Sometimes “no” is final. But sometimes “no” creates an opportunity to find out where you fell short, what you could do differently, or how you could develop a better “fit” with the other person.

Again, maybe the problem isn’t you or what you provide. Maybe it’s just a lack of understanding—on both sides—of how you really can meet each other’s needs.

The best way to deal with rejection?

Short-term coping strategies are great, but the very best way to deal with rejection isn’t to learn not to take it personally, to keep moving forward, or even to stay focused on your long-term goals…

The best way to deal with rejection is to succeed—not because you then will never have to face rejection, but because success will give you the confidence to take the occasional or even frequent “no” in stride.

Improve and you’ll feel more confident. Gain skill and you’ll feel more confident. Enjoy success, however small, and you’ll feel more confident.

And that feeling of confidence will spill over to other areas of your life. Achieve a level of success in one area of your life and you’ll feel better about other areas of your life, too—even the things you don’t do particularly well. “I may not be so great at this…” you’ll think, “But I am good at that.” 

And more importantly, you’ll realize that putting in the work will allow you to be good at this, too.

That knowledge allows you to stay the course in the face of short-term rejection. To realize that one shortcoming does not define you.

You’ll come to realize that if you’ve learned to do one thing really well, you can learn to do many things really well.

All you have to do is keep trying.

Updated: July 19, 2019

Jeff Haden
Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.

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