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Hello Rejection, my old friend

Rejection. It’s a part of life and often a necessity if we want to make our way forward in this world. For instance, last spring, I was rejected 66 times from women that I personally invited to join my women’s leadership retreat. That was a lot of NOs!

I tasted so many different flavors in those 66 NOs, like different flavors of jelly beans (including those disgusting vomit and dirt flavored every flavor beans my kids enjoy so much):

Sorry, too busy.

No thanks.

Not this time, but keep me on your list.


Sorry, I don’t have the budget right now.

That date doesn’t work for me.

… [the sound of silence] …

The first NO stung like a paper cut.

The next NO was a punch in the gut.

By the third, fourth, or fifth NO, I was feeling like a failure.

What’s going on in the brain when you feel rejected? You know the saying, ‘rejection cuts like a knife’? Well, it’s true when you look at a brain scan. Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman at UCLA have shown that in the first few milliseconds after hearing NO, rejection and criticism activate the same brain areas that physical pain does. In this early phase, the NO triggers activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain area activated by the acute distress of both physical pain (like holding your hand in ice water until you can’t stand it) and psychological pain (like being excluded or criticized).

This early phase of our rejection reaction also lights up the insula, a funny little brain area deep in the belly of the brain. Neuroscience rock star, Antonio Damasio, suggests that the insula gives rise to conscious emotional experience and self-awareness. In our case, the insula is likely the source of the negative emotions and self-doubt raised by rejection. (Note: Damasio points to solid research to back up his claim that the insula is the seat of conscious experience. Yet, many classical neuroscientists look at Damasio with a skeptically raised eyebrow in much the same way classical musicians look askance at rock stars. “Really? You’re going to make claims about the neuroscience of consciousness? Okay…”)

But that’s not the end of the neuroscience story. A recent review article by Huiying Wang and colleagues in Germany separates out the early and late phases of the neural response to rejection. After the anterior cingulate cortex and insula have processed the cut of the knife, the prefrontal cortex is recruited to regulate the emotional response. It puts the incident in a larger context. How biting was that remark, really? Who is this person in my life? How often does this occur? What does it mean? When the prefrontal cortex gets involved during this later phase, it helps dial up or dial down the psychological impact based on past history.

What this means to us is that if you can prompt your prefrontal cortex to dial down the early response to rejection, and soothe that initial burst of hurt and self-doubt, then the longer term impact those NOs on self esteem and motivation might not be so bad.

Pause. Read that again. You have control, via your prefrontal cortex, over how much psychological pain that NO will have on you down the road. You can dial it up and feel like a failure. Or you can dial it down to reduce the impact, and possibly turn each NO from something negative to something neutral or perhaps even positive.

Yes. Really.

You’ve probably experienced this yourself. For instance, have you ever noticed that the words, “You lack confidence,” coming from a friend, delivered with worry in their eyes, can feel completely different than the exact same words coming from your mom who has always nitpicked your every effort. Worst of all might be. “You lack confidence,” on a performance review delivered by your boss. New research published just this year from Michelle Neoh and colleagues in Singapore shows that feedback from your supervisor has an outsized negative emotional impact compared to your spouse or parents. The closeness of the relationship, the level of trust, and its permanence (your mom is your mom for life while you can ditch your boss), help the prefrontal cortex to dial down the negative impact of criticism.

I’m looking at a whole lot of NOs coming up for me because my professional goals for the next six months include landing an agent for my book and getting onto a TEDx stage. I was told that most book authors query over 70 agents before finding one to represent them, if any are interested at all. And I was told that TEDx speakers pitch their talk an average of 86 times before being accepted for a production.

Irene… get ready for a whole lot of rejection. Here’s how I’m preparing my prefrontal cortex for the assault of NOs.

$1,000 NOs

One of the women in my mastermind group was struggling with precisely this problem last week. She approached venue after venue, collecting dozens of flavors of NO, and was feeling dejected. Here’s what I texted her:

“Consider this mindset shift…

Step 1: How much money did you earn from your work last year?

Step 2: How many NOs did you collect last year?

Step 3: Divide money by the number of NOs = how much each NO is worth.

For instance, if you earned $50,000 and collected 50 NOs, then each NO is worth $1,000.

Imagine where 100 $1,000 NOs could get you.”

Now I’m not brilliant enough to come up with this shift on my own. Many thanks to Rich Litvin for this gem of an idea. But I’ve used it countless times since learning it. Suddenly, rejection becomes lighter. It’s more like a strategy game, less like a punch in the gut.

In my case, a good book deal for a first time author averages around $10,000. Divided by 70 agents, that’s $142 per NO. For a TEDx talk, I’m hoping several new clients and keynote speaking opportunities might open up with the additional visibility, making each NO worth upwards of $250 each.

Though that’s a lot less than $1,000 per NO in my hypothetical scenario, that’s good money. Certainly worth the time and effort to query and apply.

Second Score

Here’s another strategy that’s especially relevant to criticism and feedback.

In Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s latest book, Thanks for the Feedback, they talk about giving yourself a ‘second score’. Let’s say you’ve been waiting for your performance review and expecting at least a 4, maybe even a 5 after all the late nights and hard work you’ve put in over the year. Instead, it comes back with a 2.


Stone and Heen suggest turning your prefrontal cortex’s attention towards managing your response to that feedback.

“After every low score you receive, after each failure or faltering step, give yourself a ‘second score’ based on how you handle the first score. In every situation in life, there’s the situation itself, and then there’s how you handle it. Even when you get an F for the situation itself, you can still earn an A+ for how you deal with it.”

It’s not just using stress resilience tools like mindfulness or a brain break to calm a stressed out brain (though those help a LOT). As Stone and Heen say: We’re suggesting that you make getting a good second score part of your identity: I don’t always succeed, but I take an honest shot at figuring out what there is to learn from the failure. I’m actually getting pretty good at that.”

How did I give myself a second score with those 66 NOs? I used my prefrontal cortex! I had little to no control over what each woman I invited might say, but I had complete control over my reaction to it. I made it into a game with my business partner Tutti – which of us could collect the most NOs. We had a chart. I moved my bunny down the racetrack for each NO I collected. She moved her dragon for each NO she collected. Each rejection was actually a statement about our collective hard work and bravery. Not only was I in control, but that second score, managed by my prefrontal cortex, was far more important to my psychological well being than the NOs I received.

It’s the difference between what Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. Instead of viewing the rejection as a judgment on our innate ability or talent (fixed mindset), you can choose to approach this feedback as a teachable moment to grow our abilities and talents over time (growth mindset). The second score is your chance to learn from a teachable moment if you choose to see it that way.


Whether you’re job hunting, reaching out on a dating app, or pitching your talent to agents, give your prefrontal cortex a chance to have a say in how rejection or criticism lands. 66 NOs could be hard to bear, but because I was counting up $142 per NO and giving myself a second score in the form of a bunny marching down a racetrack, I wasn’t crushed by the rejection.

You got this!

Read More

Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s book, Thanks for the Feedback is, in my humble opinion, a must have on any leader’s bookshelf. I’ll be delivering a three and a half hour deep dive workshop on the neuroscience of giving and receiving feedback at the Charter School Development Center conference in Sacramento, CA November 13-15. Charter leaders, I hope to see you there!

For more on the $1,000 NOs strategy, see Rich Litvin’s article on the subject. A great short read.

Finally, for more on how I’ve dealt with failure in all it’s jelly bean different flavors, see this blog post on failing forward.

Goring Further

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