Microsoft founder Bill Gates once gave a speech in Beijing, China. A boy named Jia Jiang listened to the speech and was impressed. So much so that he wrote down a plan to become a successful entrepreneur. He even planned to buy the entire Microsoft company someday.
Dreams don’t always work out as planned. Jiang and his family emigrated to the United States when he was 16 years old. He ended up working in the marketing department of a company. He was unhappy in his work and still wanted to become a successful entrepreneur.
Jiang left his corporate job and embarked on his entrepreneurial dream. Unfortunately, his first efforts ended in rejection. But he realized that worrying about rejection was a bigger obstacle than rejection itself.
Jiang decided that he needed to find a way to cope with rejection without letting it destroy him. He came up with a “100 days of rejections” experiment, which he filmed and chronicled on his website.
Jiang’s crazy experiments included asking for a “refill burger” much like people ask for a soda refill (he was denied). He knocked on a stranger’s door and asked if he could plant some flowers in their backyard. When the person said no, Jiang asked “Why not?”
The person said the dog would destroy the flowers, but suggested he ask the neighbour. Jiang asked the neighbour, and she was thrilled to have flowers planted in her backyard. Jiang learned that respectfully asking “Why not?” can sometimes lead to other opportunities.
One of Jiang’s more famous experiments was asking a Krispy Kreme employee to make donuts in the shape of the Olympics logo. Much to his surprise, the employee accommodated him and then gave him the donuts for free. Jiang learned that people are kinder than we realize, and sometimes grant the most preposterous wish.
It’s not failure that kills our dreams, it’s fear.
A lot of people talk themselves out of the risks and efforts that could bring them success. Their fear of failure, ridicule, or rejection, prevents them from even trying.
Where would J. K. Rowling be today if she gave in to her self-doubt and fear of not making it as a writer? The manuscript for Rowling’s first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was written in Edinburgh cafes while Rowling and her daughter lived on government benefits.
The Harry Potter book was rejected by twelve publishers before being picked up by Bloomsbury. Today, J. K. Rowling is worth around 1 billion dollars.
“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are far more than our abilities.”
— Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Consider the choices you make. Do they bend towards calculated risk-taking? Do you sidestep fear and try new things, or do you stick with what’s safe and comfortable?
Failure is seldom what’s keeping you back. It’s fear. And fear can disguise itself in lots of unproductive ways. Here are a few examples.
Are you the kind of person that lines your ducks up in a perfect row before you embark on a new project? Does everything have to be perfect in your art studio before you can begin painting?
Perfectionism is a kind of fear. You resist starting and waste time getting everything ready.
“You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” -Wayne Gretzky
Maybe you conduct endless research or seek out the most expensive tools when they’re not necessary. There’s nothing wrong with trying to do everything perfectly but sometimes done trumps perfect.
It’s better to dive into your new project with the tools at hand and upgrade later on if you experience some success.
Nobody likes to be made fun of or laughed at, but in many ways, our fear of ridicule and shame is far worse than the actual ridicule and shame. The more well-adjusted and self-confident you become, the more you realize that people laughing at you is short-lived. They quickly forget and move on in their lives.
People like Jia Jiang have figured out that rejection, embarrassment, and ridicule are a part of life. Ambitious and successful people tolerate these uncomfortable moments because each failure is instructive. However embarrassing or mortifying, each failure moves us closer to the prize.
Human beings are designed to conserve energy. We don’t like to seemingly waste our time on unpleasant tasks. We fear how such tasks will make us feel. In this sense, procrastination is a form of fear. Fear of discomfort. Maybe even a fear of success.
This is why we settle onto the couch and watch Netflix instead of jumping on the treadmill for a vigorous workout. We take the path of least resistance. But then, as we’re watching those attractive and physically fit action heroes on Netflix, we start to feel bad about our own fitness.
Don’t let the fear of discomfort prevent you from doing hard things. Consider the wisdom of decorated Green Beret Jason B. A. Van Camp, in his book “Deliberate Discomfort: How U. S. Special Operations Forces Overcome Fear and Dare to Win By Getting Comfortable Being Uncomfortable.”
Van Camp writes:
“When you make the courageous decision to deliberately choose discomfort, you prove to yourself that you are no longer satisfied with the way things are and you won’t tolerate it any longer. You’re ready for change, for growth. You are ready to accept and embrace suffering because you want a better life for yourself, your family, and/or your business.”
Past experiences are powerful. When the experiences are good, they can empower us to try new things and risks. When the experiences are bad, they can immobilize us with inaction and fear.
Learned helplessness is a condition in which someone suffers from a sense of powerlessness. It’s often caused by a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. It is a major source of depression in people.
Overcoming learned helplessness will vary with different people. Some folks may need professional help, to deal with past trauma and/or abuse.
For others, an optimistic (versus pessimistic) mindset will help greatly. Start with baby steps, pushing yourself each day to try new things and risk a bit more.
Enlist family or friends for moral support. Ignore internal, defeatist self-talk. Remember that embarrassments and failures are survivable, and will move you closer to your goal.
When we fail to educate ourselves, it’s easier for fear to hold us back. Ignorance makes us succumb to fear-based narratives running through our minds. The antidote is education. The more you learn about the thing that scares you, the easier it will be to defeat.
I used to be afraid of flying. Everything about air travel made me anxious and afraid. My mind would run wild with thoughts of mechanical malfunctions. Each ringing bell in the plane, and every bump of turbulence, caused a near panic attack in me.
To combat my aerophobia I educated myself. I read about how planes work, how safe they are, and how to manage my anxiety. I learned to recognize the triggers that set me off and ways to calm down. By eliminating my ignorance, I became a much more confident air traveller.
My fear of air travel nearly prevented me from flying to Idaho to study landscape painting with an acclaimed artist I admire. Same for my trip to Tennessee, where I attended an intensive workshop on writing and blogging. Fortunately, my wife convinced me to take those trips, and they proved essential to my creative growth.
By overcoming my ignorance, I was able to fly, and attend educational events that moved me closer to my dreams.
Fear kills more dreams than failure. Failure is no picnic, but at least it teaches us lessons. We learn to do things differently. We learn to try better approaches.
“He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
When we overcome our fear, we free ourselves to try. To risk. To experiment. We might fail, but at least we learn what doesn’t work. In this way, we grow and move forward.
Take a page from Jia Jiang and get more comfortable with rejection. Follow J. K. Rowling’s example and don’t give up. Twelve publishers said no to Rowling’s Harry Potter book, but the thirteenth publisher said yes. Now Rowling is a billionaire.
Follow Green Beret Jason B. A. Van Camp’s advice and “deliberately choose discomfort.” Resist the path of least resistance, punch fear in the face, view failures as learning moments, and chase your dreams.
John P. Weiss
Artist & Writer, Author of “An Artful Life-Inspirational Stories & Essays for the Artist in Everyone.”