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You’ve Been Turned Down, Now What?
Did you catch the false premise in the title? If you didn’t, then here’s the first lesson: Don’t take it personally. It almost certainly wasn’t you that got turned down. There are a million reasons, at last count, for rejection, but unless you’re a crook, or unprofessional, or just a plain old fashioned reprobate, then none of those reasons have anything to do with you as a person.
“Don’t take things personally” is the second of The Four Agreements, which is the title of one of my favourite books of all time, by Don Miguel Ruiz. If you stopped reading this post to buy the book and read that instead, I’d consider my job done. I tried to adopt all of the agreements (not always successfully) when I turned my career around at PlayStation around a decade ago. The Four Agreements makes for an excellent business model.
Let’s say you have an amazing project and an amazing pitch. Will you be successful at the first attempt? Unless you’re spectacularly lucky, it’s highly unlikely. Look at the people who’ve gone on to be spectacularly successful and one of their most common traits is persistence.
Persistence is easy when you’re trying to get more sleep and lie in, it’s really easy to persist in getting more sleep, and I find it devilishly easy to persist in finishing a 200g bar of Diabetic Kryptonite (that’s the trade name of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk by the way), but persistence is really, really hard when you’re trying to be disciplined, which is the ability to make yourself do what you don’t want to do, when you have to do it.
Pitching is different. You don’t have to pitch. You can try the other strategy that many try; hope. I’ve found that hope is ineffective. I’ve never made money with hope. Hustling is better. Hustling is not sleazy. It’s my way of describing the Churchillian process of proceeding from failure to failure without any loss of optimism. (We’ve also talked about failure in this newsletter, please refer to my earlier posts on both discipline and failure.)
Many of us feel hurt when we’re rejected, but the first step is not to take it personally. Why? Because it’s almost never about you. Fine, what is it about then? Well, you might have caught your prospect at the wrong point in their acquisition cycle. Or on a bad day. Or you’re talking to the wrong person, and remember, never take a “no” from someone who doesn’t have the authority to say “yes”. Other reasons? You’re pitching the wrong company. Their strategy has changed. You’re pitching too early. You’re pitching too late. You have a great product, but the pitch was poor, or didn’t go well. Your pitch went well, but the product is not right for the company. The budget is too big. The budget is too small (yep, had that one a few times and no, they’ll know if you just jack up the budget, they know what to expect for their money, or they wouldn’t have a job!) The list is endless. It’s a wonder anything gets signed at all!
What can you do when you get rejected? Never leave a meeting without improving your relationship with your prospect. Never leave a meeting without learning something about the people you’ve dealt with or the company you’re pitching to.
The First Agreement is to be impeccable with your word, and the more positive interactions you have, the more you’ll be recognised as a person of interest in the future, word gets around.
Pitching is often a numbers game. Or a timing game. Or a presentation game. Or a personality game. Or a reputation game. Or mostly, all of the above. I pitched my ideas for Strategic Content at PlayStation for six years before I made a breakthrough and for most of that time, I was an idiot and took things personally, but all the time, I was learning, and the company was learning about me. I built on small successes before I was entrusted with bigger projects. Eventually, I’d built up enough career capital, enough credibility, enough experience, and I took some of the rough edges off my big mouth and learned to be more concise (a problem I still struggle with!) and finally my pitch for a monstrous budget to support the work of independent developers was successful. What it boils down to is that for years, I took rejection personally, and never allowed myself to evolve, to remove my rough edges, to work with the way things were rather than expect them to be the way I wanted them to be. I blamed everyone except myself. I was always responsible.
Think about how long it take to make a diamond. That’s you and your career, but obviously, scale it down to a lifetime, I’m not asking you to wait millions of years, even though it might feel that way at times. Apply enough pressure (work at your craft) for enough time (while learning from your experiences) and you will shine, it’s just physics and chemistry.
You might have the carbon, but if you don’t want to remain a lump of coal, you have to go through the process and that means enduring a lot of prospects saying you’re just a lump of coal. They might not see the diamond in you, but that’s fine, you see it, and you know where you’re headed. Sometimes you’re a diamond and they want rubies. That’s fine, you just need to get in front of diamond customers. At least you’re at a point where you can be more focussed.
Towards the end of Ultimatum Games, I pitched “Death is That Way” to dozens of prospects, and I’m not bad at pitching, but it didn’t get picked up. Does that make it a failure? Not at all. I could have tried more. I could have worked on it more, polished it more, changed the emphasis completely. I could have met more prospects. I could have changed the demo. I could have changed the presentation. A lot of people got what we were trying to do, but I couldn’t meet them in the middle. I never took a single rejection personally. Guess what that means? No bridges burned. Relationships still strong, more opportunity in the future, more chances to be a diamond.
I also pitched Floor 13: Deep State (out now, published by Humble Games on Steam) to dozens of companies and that eventually found a home. Again, none of the people I pitched to were made to feel that I took the rejection personally. I even sent codes to the ones who offered feedback!
Don’t take things personally and as Jim Ryan always used to tell me at every small achievement, “Keep going!”