WorkLife with Adam Grant
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Adam Grant: When I was just starting my career, I knew that to one day get tenure, I had to be productive. Publish or perish. So, early in grad school, I started submitting research papers to top journals. The first one got rejected. So did the second. Experts in my own field were telling me that my work was not good enough. I wondered if I should drop out. I'd been working on a third paper, so I decided to give it one more shot. I spent months perfecting it, got feedback from more than a dozen leading thinkers and shipped it to our premier journal. But that one got rejected, too. I emailed the editor and asked if I could have another chance. He said no.

That afternoon, an adviser told me to put it away in a drawer for six months and come back to it once the pain had faded. I was appalled by the idea. I didn't want to be the kind of person who couldn't face rejection. So I did the opposite. I spent the next three days at my desk, in my pajamas, subsisting on ramen noodles and takeout. I rewrote the paper and sent it back in. The editor replied with four words: "Dear Adam, you win." A few months later, I had my first publication in a prestigious journal. The editor told me he didn't give me a second chance because he believed in my work. He gave me a chance because he saw me accept rejection and then use it to improve my work.

I ended up publishing plenty of papers and getting tenure. But making a name in the field hasn't really helped. We submit papers anonymously for blind review, and I still get rejected all the time. I've already had two papers rejected this year. One reviewer even wrote, "You should go back and the read the work of Adam Grant." Dude, I am Adam Grant! There are different ways to cope with rejection that can help you get through it. But there are also techniques for handling rejection that can actually make you stronger.

(Theme music)

In case it's not clear yet, I'm Adam Grant, and this is WorkLife, my podcast with TED. I'm an organizational psychologist. I study how to make work not suck. In this show, I'm inviting myself inside the minds of some truly unusual people, because they've mastered something I wish everyone knew about work. Today: rejection and how it's possible to not just bounce back, but bounce forward. Thanks to Hilton for sponsoring this episode.

Sarah Robb O'Hagan: I moved my entire life across to Manhattan. I didn't know a soul on the East Coast, and I maxed out every single credit card moving to my first shitty, hot, sweaty apartment in Manhattan, and showed up for work.

AG: Sarah Robb O'Hagan was in her mid-twenties. She's a native New Zealander, and coming from a country where there are far more sheep than people, she'd always wanted to travel. She'd just landed her dream job in marketing for Virgin Atlantic. She jumped at the chance to work for her idol.

SRO: When I was in college, Richard Branson and the original Virgin Airlines had really ascended, and he just represented such an incredibly awesome antiestablishment view that I just personally really connected with.

AG: And it didn't take long before Sarah was making waves at Virgin. She pitched an ad campaign to Sir Richard himself. And it was a huge success.

SRO: I just thought, "This is amazing. I can do no wrong. My career is just off to the races. How awesome is this?"

AG: That campaign led to a big promotion to lead marketing for Virgin's music division in LA.

SRO: So I take the job, thinking that I am the shit at this point. You know, I sort of storm in through the door like, "I've been hanging out with Richard Branson, here I am, this is going to be amazing." And a year into it, almost a year to the day, I walked into the office, and I still remember setting down my coffee and popping out my computer and there was a phone call that said I should go over to my boss's office. You know when your boss and your boss's boss and HR are sitting in the room, that it's not going to be good. (Laughs) There was no discussion of why it was happening, it was just, "Your job is eliminated. You are getting one week's severance pay and a one-way ticket back to New Zealand, because we have to get rid of your visa." In other words, "It's our obligation to send you out of this country, that's how bad you are." And I remember being in absolute shock. I still get sort of, pains of anxiety remembering walking through that fucking office with everybody sitting at their desks and you know, as I'm walking out, they're like little prairie dogs with their heads popping over the tops of their cubes, going, "Who is this and why is this loser being marched out of the office?" And it's just a horrific feeling of ... I don't know. You feel like a criminal.

AG: Rejection. It leaves us feeling incompetent and worthless. The pain of rejection often gets explained in terms of evolution. In prehistoric times, if being rejected didn't bother you, you could end up on your own, with no food and no group to protect you from being mauled by a tiger. Which would make it awfully difficult to pass on your genes. Even though rejection rarely has life or death consequences today, we're still wired to have those intense reactions. Neuroscientists argue that rejection actually causes physical pain. There's a great demonstration of this in a cruel online game called Cyberball. On your computer screen, you're tossing a ball around with a few other players, like a game of catch. But after a little while, the other players suddenly stop passing the ball to you. You've been excluded, rejected by the rest of the group. How would you feel? To find out, neuroscientists scanned people's brains while they were playing Cyberball. It turns out that when you're rejected, your brain lights up in ways that are similar to processing physical pain. You can see the same physiological response when people who have recently been dumped are shown pictures of their exes. It's not exactly the same as physical pain, but it does hurt. It won't surprise you that over 100 studies have documented that social rejection has a strong effect on our emotions. Sarah knows this from experience.

SRO: Where do I start? It was all a rejection in my childhood.

(Laughter)

AG: She tried every sport she could find: swimming, skiing, sailing, water skiing, field hockey.

SRO: But I got rejected, never even made the A team of any sport that I tried out for. I would feel this absolute pang of devastation, like, "Why is this happening to me again?"

AG: Getting fired is even worse. Research shows that losing your job predicts a cascade of negative life events, from financial strain to depression, to marital conflict and poor health. When you get fired, there's a natural way to respond to the rejection — by trying to protect your ego: "It's not me, it's you." That's what Sarah did at Virgin. She started pointing fingers, blaming her employer.

SRO: In my head, I was like, you know, it was their fault. They were horrible people, they were bad leaders, and it was not a good place to work.

AG: She spent the next month fuming. But the more she reflected, the more she began to feel that it was her own fault. This is another common response: "It's not you, it's really me." She blamed herself.

SRO: I was very, very hard on myself. It was hard not to blame myself. I had just become so full of myself because of the success I'd had at Virgin Atlantic, that I just wasn't listening.

AG: Eventually, Sarah landed another job.

SRO: So I end up working at Atari, the video game publisher.

AG: And that was exciting. And then you got fired again.

SRO: Adam, I got laid off the second time. That is a huge improvement.

(Laughter)

AG: Like in the past, Sarah faced a choice: she could blame Atari or herself. She blamed herself.

SRO: I entirely took the blame. I was just like — it was all me, and I didn't really see any other part of it. I think having gone from a firing to a layoff, I was just like, "What has happened? Is my career over? Am I ever going to get back on my feet again?"

AG: It took Sarah many months of reflection to see things differently, that this wasn't the end of her career. And she also realized that it was time to stop ruminating about the past.

SRO: I started to move forward, because I finally just acknowledged this happened and it was my fault, and I'm ready to move on.

AG: Is there a difference for you, psychologically, between failure and rejection?

SRO: Wow, Adam, that's deep.

(Laughter)

Yeah, I actually kind of think there is, in that failure for me is more what's in your own control, and rejection is not necessarily in your control, because someone else is making that call.

AG: Getting fired and then laid off was something she couldn’t control. But after some time passed, Sarah had turned her attention to something she could control: how she explained the rejection. When something goes wrong, the big question is: Who's at fault? For a long time, psychologists only studied two kinds of explanations: blaming others and blaming ourselves. You heard Sarah do both at Virgin. And then, blame herself again at Atari.

SRO: My confidence was just at an all-time low.

AG: In some situations, those reactions may be totally appropriate. Yet, blaming ourselves often makes us weaker. It leaves our confidence shattered. Blaming others makes us weaker, too. It prevents us from learning from our own mistakes. Recently, researchers have discovered that there’s a third option. Most if the time, when you get rejected, the main reason is not you, it's not me, it's us. That's what Sarah came to understand as she started to analyze her relationship with Atari.

SRO: You know, I've realized that that rejection was not a failure, it was actually just a mismatch. Because I just was like, I could have avoided this if I had actually picked a job in an industry or a category where I had a lot more knowledge.

AG: And video games were not that category?

SRO: And video games were so not that category. I actually hate video games, which is enormously hard when your job is marketing. You know, at lunch time, the entire place would just go silent with the sound of the mouses clicking, with the entire office playing this massively multiplayer game or whatever they call it. And I'm sitting there going, "Why the fuck is no one wanting to go for a run with me?" Like, I had nothing in common with the people that I worked with, let alone the product, so yeah, it was a bad fit.

(Laughter)

AG: The fit. That's often a better way to look at things. Therapists point out that in any relationship, there are not two, but three parties: you, the other person and the relationship itself. What's usually to blame is the relationship, the fit between you and me. And new evidence shows that when people get negative feedback at work, if they attribute it to the relationship rather than just to the individuals involved, they don't wallow in self-pity or lash out in anger. They become motivated to improve. That doesn't mean shirking responsibility or failing to hold others accountable. It means realizing that in many of our struggles, the biggest problem lies not in individuals, but in relationships. Which is the insight that helped Sarah not just bounce back, but bounce forward.

SRO: When I look back and realize that yes, a giant amount of the screwups was me, but a big chunk of it also was that I was the wrong person in wildly the wrong environment, and I just realize now that if you're in the wrong environment, sometimes, I think, it's really easy to beat yourself up of all the stuff you're doing wrong, when in actual fact, the same person can be a screaming success in a completely different environment, and you just have to see if you can find it for yourself.

AG: Sarah had an idea about what that right environment might be for her. She loved sports and fitness, so she applied for a marketing job at Nike. She was nervous.

SRO: I knew that I couldn't pretend that these screwups hadn't happened, because it's pretty clear — you can see it on one's resume when, you know, you suddenly exit. But I also knew that if I was able to speak to it, then with any luck, you know, that sort of takes the sting out of the awkwardness of the elephant in the room. And it shows a level of self-awareness.

AG: After a grueling interview process, Sarah ended up with an offer.

SRO: By the way, it was a title cut, a pay cut, it was a much smaller job than anything I'd been doing. But I was like, I will take anything just to get in the door and prove myself again in a big, respected company that obviously Nike was. And the minute I got there, it was just a game change. I suddenly was like a duck to water. I just felt so at home.

AG: Sarah has been named one of the most powerful women in sports by Forbes and one of the most creative people in business by Fast Company. She's helped CEO, president and board positions at a range of big athletic companies: Flywheel, Equinox, SoulCycle and Gatorade, where she led a successful turnaround and rejuvenation of the brand.

SRO: I always wanted to be some great success.

AG: So how the hell do you make sense of all this success, when you’re the person who got fired multiple times?

SRO: (Laughs) I truly, truly believe that I would not have gone on to have had the successes I had if I had not had such difficult firings and screwups earlier in my career. When I was leading the turnaround at Gatorade, for a period of 18 months, our results were so incredibly embarrassingly bad, that you know, I think daily I was expecting to get fired. And because I'd been through this before, it gave me just this incredibly deep reservoir of courage to keep going, because I just knew that even if they fire me, I'm going to be OK, because I've been through that before.

AG: In psychology, there's a term for it: post-traumatic growth. Sure, our sense of strength often comes from success. But hardships can have that effect, too. After big setbacks, people often come away with a greater sense of personal strength. They think, "If I could get through that, I can get through almost anything." But Sarah thinks we should go further. We should be more open about the rejections we've faced along the way. Which is why her LinkedIn profile has a list of epic fails.

SRO: Got fired, not once but twice, Responsible for one of the worst athlete campaigns in Nike history. Oh — responsible for the initial downturn of Gatorade before the following upturn.

AG: What do you say to people?

SRO: Um ... (Laughs) "I got fired, I got my ass fired. Has that ever happened to you?" And you’ll be surprised for how many people it has. When you tell someone, you know, "Here's the areas where I screwed up, and here's what I'm not good at," you immediately sort of put yourself into a position of strength, because the expectation of what you're going to deliver is the stuff you've said you're really good at. And the other stuff — you've already sort of taken away the fear and worry that you're going to get put in a position that you can't necessarily deliver.

(Music)

AG: Even more common than getting fired is the rejection of not getting hired for a job in the first place. If you're like many people, you've been rejected dozens or even hundreds of times.

Emily Winter: I've been crashing and burning my whole life, and I'm still not used to it.

AG: Emily Winter wanted to be a comedy writer but kept getting turned down for jobs.

EW: I didn't want to go onstage, I didn't want people to look at me. But I wasn't getting anywhere with my career as a comedy writer, and I couldn't break in to the industry, so people had recommended that I do it.

AG: So she decided to try stand-up. She started at open mics, and it did not go well.

EW: I took my little notebook and I was reading right off the page and I wasn't looking up, and I was shaking.

AG: Was there a particular joke that went over especially badly?

EW: You know, one of my first jokes was about eating my ex-boyfriend.

AG: What?

EW: Yeah, it was like, "Oh, my ex-boyfriend was a vegetarian, but when we broke up and I ate him, he tasted like chicken." It was a terrible joke.

(Laughter)

AG: Well, hold on, you've got me laughing. Maybe I'm laughing at how bad it is, I can't tell.

EW: Yeah, I think we can laugh at the joke now, not with the joke.

(Laughter)

AG: She continued to bomb regularly onstage. And the rejections continued to sting.

EW: It feels awful and you feel like you just want to crawl in a hole. I think for the first two years, I was terrified of everything and everyone. And then, after four years, I just really started to come alive onstage and feel comfortable in my own skin onstage and not take every rejection as the end of my world.

AG: But those comedy writing jobs just weren't flowing in.

EW: People are professionally ghosted all the time, and that hurts and that takes a toll on you. But being professionally ghosted is a rejection.

AG: Emily needed to do something different. At the tail end of 2017, she had an idea. She decided to set a goal to get 100 professional rejections.

EW: I was just like, I have to create opportunities for myself. Trying to get rejected 100 times was scary and empowering. Like, I was sort of excited going into the year, because I kind of felt invincible, because it really does reframe things as a win-win. Obviously, a rejection is an asset when you're aiming for 100 rejections. That's a win, it goes on the list of rejections. So I made it my New Year's resolution for 2018.

AG: She started sending off applications for writing jobs. She submitted scripts to shows and articles to newspapers and magazines. She auditioned for comedy festivals. And she kept a spreadsheet with a list of all the rejections, writing notes to herself following every one.

EW: So in my notes column, I have, "Wow, this feels personal," "Hello, I'm here and I'm doing the things. What do you want from me?" "OK, this woman has no idea who I am. Humbling." "My feelings are very hurt today," in all caps. "Awkward. I thought we were pals. Ow. Got rejected from a friend." "I am crying." One that just says, "K, bye!"

(Laughter)

In the end, I ended up with 107 rejections and 43 acceptances.

AG: Wow. But you were only aiming for 100. How did you get seven extra rejections?

EW: Oh, because I'm just extra bad. I will always go that extra mile on my failure, you know.

AG: But the 43 acceptances were a huge step forward.

EW: Two places I had always wanted to write for are the "New York Times" and the "New Yorker." And then I was like, "I think maybe I'm not smart enough for the 'New Yorker.' I shouldn't submit to them."

AG: When her goal was to be rejected, she figured she might as well give it a shot.

So when I sent it to the "New Yorker," I was just terrified. And then the "New Yorker" wanted it. And I was like, wow, this is amazing! And actually, I just got my first humor piece in the "New York Times" Sunday. So, I did it!

AG: Congratulations. Think about a time when you've had your creative work rejected or you've been denied by an employer or a university. What did you say to yourself? Psychologists find that the way you talk to yourself matters. In one experiment, people recalled an event that made them feel bad about themselves — a rejection, failure or humiliation. Some of them were randomly assigned to write about their emotions, while others, in order to boost their self-esteem, wrote specifically about what made them competent and valuable. That second group didn't come away any happier or any less angry. Self-esteem boosts didn't really do any good. But a different approach did. A third group of people were asked to show themselves compassion, to write a letter to themselves expressing the kindness and understanding they would offer to a good friend. Their happiness increased significantly. And some of their anger melted away. Self-compassion is recognizing that you're only human, and everyone makes mistakes. It allows you to take responsibility for improving in the future, without beating yourself up for the events of the past. Which is exactly what Emily Winter learned to do as she started accumulating rejections.

EW: I'm a little too hard on myself. One thing I learned is that failing doesn't mean that you're a failure. I think that's something I could have told myself a million times before, but I finally internalized, because I came out of this year with the best resume that I've ever had. Seeking out rejection changed my year. One of the cool jobs I got last year was writing jokes for NPR's "Ask Me Another," which is my favorite show hosted by my favorite comedian. And I'm so happy to be there. I mean, I wouldn't have submitted for all these things. I don't think I would be as confident as I am now.

AG: And she's made more of a name for herself in the stand-up world, too.

EW: I have gone to stand-up comedy shows where younger comedians who I don't really know are like, "Hey, are you that rejection girl?" And I'm like, "Yeah, is that my brand now? OK." But it's kind of fun, because I actually really love talking about getting rejected.

(Clip) I recently went into my boss's office to ask for a raise, and it felt really confrontational, so I just quit.

(Laughter)

AG: It almost sounds like getting rejected more often has made your life better.

EW: I do think we should all have a goal of being rejected. If you never experience rejection, you're not growing, right? That's why it's called growing pains.

AG: But rejection hurts a lot more when you don't seek it out, when it comes unexpectedly. Especially when people are rejecting your very best effort. How do you find the strength to not just bounce back, but bounce forward? More on that after the break. OK, this is going to be a different kind of ad. I've played a personal role in selecting the sponsors for this podcast, because they all have interesting cultures of their own. Today we're going inside the workplace at Hilton.

(Music)

Rick Nelson: For me, becoming a dad — it's been my whole life.

AG: Rick Nelson grew up on a farm in North Dakota, surrounded by family: grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins.

RN: Our house was the spot where people just dropped in on. Lots of laughter and music, and it was just such an incredible environment to grow up in.

AG: Rick eventually moved to Austin, Texas, where he now works at Hilton as the Senior Director of Sales. In Austin, Rick met Adam, the man who became his husband. It didn't take long for them to start talking about kids.

RN: It came up on the first date even. And both of us stated then that that was something we always wanted. And I'm in my forties, so the clock was ticking.

AG: They decided to adopt. But the process was overwhelming. Then, in January 2017, Rick opened up a company-wide email, announcing Hilton's adoption assistance program.

RN: It was that catalyst that said, OK, we've got to get serious about this, let's do it now.

AG: The program is open to any full-time team member who's been working at Hilton for at least a year. Adopting parents get 10,000 dollars per child, with no limit on how many children they can adopt. The money helps cover application fees, court costs, meals, even immunizations. And adoption assistance is just one of the great programs Hilton has created for parents.

Laura Fuentes: We ask our team members what matters to them.

AG: Laura Fuentes is the Senior Vice President of Talent and Rewards at Hilton. In their internal surveys, family kept coming up as a big theme.

LF: And we ask ourselves, are we bringing to life our values of hospitality, of leadership, of ownership? And for parental leave and adoption assistance, this was a very straightforward answer. This is a critical moment for our team members' lives outside of work, and we want them to feel supported at every step of the way.

AG: I found in my research that people are more committed to companies that go above and beyond in supporting their lives outside work. They feel grateful to have the support and proud to work for a company with a heart.

RK: I really saw how much support we had, and it blew me away.

AG: Just 10 days after turning in their adoption paperwork, Rick and Adam got the call to come and pick up their son, Ben.

RN: It happened so quickly, my head definitely was spinning.

AG: Rick went to his boss and asked what he needed to do to get time off work.

RN: She just said, "We'll worry about all of that stuff later, just go get that baby." And that's what we did. You know, when I think about benefits, I typically am thinking about the basics, so that when I saw a program come out like this, and one that really directly had touched me because it's something I've always wanted, I was definitely touched.

AG: Just a year later, the adoption agency called again. Ben's biological mother wanted to see if the couple would like to adopt his baby brother. Hilton immediately contributed another 10,000 dollars to help.

RN: It's a lot of money. But to me, that said so much more, if they're willing to help us out achieve a dream of ours. That's what Hilton did for us, and I think it's a pretty huge deal.

AG: And now, every morning, Rick, Adam and their two children start their day with breakfast in bed, watching "Sesame Street."

RN: There's always that moment every morning, when I'm looking at the four of us in awe that this is all we have. And it is just the most incredible way to start your day.

AG: In the US, Hilton was recently named the number one workplace for parents and the number one workplace for diversity by the Great Place to Work Institute. And for 2019, Fortune's number one best company to work for. Learn more at jobs.hilton.com.

(Music)

(Music)

M. Night Shyamalan: "This director is a young dog who needs some new tricks."

AG: Movie critics can be pretty nasty.

MNS: "Another mediocre lunacy from the overrated M. Night Shyamalan, so meaningless and distant in its details that it hardly stands a chance of wooing even the most willing fellow traveler."

AG: That voice — it's not a critic. It's M. Night Shyamalan himself. He's the Oscar-nominated writer and director of "The Sixth Sense." But he's learned that when you do creative work, people don't always appreciate it. So I asked him to read some of the harsher reviews, and he kindly obliged.

MNS: Man, I was not doing well with the New York publications there.

AG: Ouch.

Personally, I feel differently about Night's work. As a kid, there were two common threads in the shows and books I loved most. One was the characters. They were superheroes — He-Man, Superman, The Flash. The other was the plot. It had a major twist, like, "The Westing Game" and "Ender's Game." So in 2000, when I went to see Night's film "Unbreakable" with some of my friends in college, I knew I had reached peak entertainment. Here was a film about superheroes and supervillains, with an amazing twist. As we walked out of the theater, I could hardly contain my excitement. I blurted out that it was my new favorite movie. But one of my friends said he didn't really like it. That friendship did not last. But my enthusiasm for Night's work did. So I was pretty psyched about the prospect of talking with him. Good afternoon.

MNS: What's up, Adam, nice to meet you.

AG: Turns out, he lives less than half an hour away from me, outside Philly.

MNS: This is the library. Anywhere you want to sit — table, coffee table?

AG: I've seen your cameos in so many movies, it's weird to see the real living person. When I asked him to read those tough reviews, his reaction was not at all what I expected.

MNS: "'The Village' reminded me not so much of Hitchcock, but 'Scooby-Doo.'" That's somewhat valid.

AG: (Laughs) I can't believe you just agreed with that. Night has learned to take rejection in stride.

MNS: I think all of us are a little bit of an experiment. For me, I'm just going to Cool-Hand-Luke it. I'm just going to keep getting up.

AG: In many jobs, the better you get, the less often you have to face rejection. If you're a teacher, once you've mastered a lesson plan, you can usually predict how your students will react. If you're a lawyer, once you've climbed up the learning curve, you can count on your appeals being accepted more often than they're denied. But in some jobs, especially creative ones, you never really climb up that learning curve. The more original your work is, the harder is it for you to judge how others will respond, because there's nothing to compare it to. So being highly skilled isn't necessarily a shield against rejection. Take a study of the letters that Beethoven wrote. When he guessed how his own symphonies would do, he often missed the mark. Of 70 compositions, there were 15 that Beethoven anticipated to be big hits but barely made a splash. There were another eight that he expected to be small compositions but ended up being major hits. In my own experiments, I found that we fall in love with the creative projects that we find most intrinsically motivating, overlooking that the audience doesn't always share our interests. Growing up, making hits that audiences would love was far from Night's mind. He didn't even expect to make movies at first.

MNS: To become a filmmaker was the equivalent of saying, "I want to start a rock and roll goth band." The immigrant mentality is, you come to the United States, and you work hard and you follow the path before you and you do better than the previous generation. That's the thing. Everybody in my family is a doctor, and so there was a sense of like, well, that's what you're doing.

AG: But Night was obsessed, making films every weekend. When he was 16, he wanted to take film classes nearby, but found out he was too young.

MNS: I told them I was 18 so I could take the courses. And I was an Indian kid, so at 16 you look like you're 12, so I was a 16-year-old pretending I was 18, but I looked like I was 12. It was just all so exciting.

AG: Do you still have family members who feel like you let them down by not becoming a doctor?

MNS: No, that's gone now.

(Laughs)

For a bit, it was there, when I was struggling back in the first couple movies. There was a sense of, "Is this for real? This is not working out" kind of thing.

AG: This was pre- "The Sixth Sense." What were those early days like?

MNS: They were tough. You know, as a 21-year-old, you fight to get a movie made. And you get it made, which is unbelievable, and it just fails on every metric. And then you get a second chance to do it and then it's a horrible experience, and again, fails on every metric.

AG: Rejection hurts because it threatens our identity. That's especially true if you see your work as a reflection of who you are. When critics and audiences rejected Night's first two films, he came away wondering if he wasn't cut out to be a filmmaker.

MNS: You know, you start to — rightfully so — evaluate, and be like, "Is this going to work out? Was that it? Was that the run? At 24, are you done?" You're going to shatter some version of yourself that's set.

AG: The mistake we often make is putting all our eggs in one identity basket. Because the reality is, we all have multiple identities. Psychologists have found that this can be a source of resilience. When one identity is threatened, we can lean on a different identity.

Blake Ashforth: And that's kind of cool, that we have this portfolio of selves that lets us kind of be the person we need to at the moment to feel better about ourselves. I think we're remarkably adept at doing that.

AG: This is Blake Ashforth. He's a leading expert on identity at Arizona State, particularly in jobs that are devalued in society. Blake got curious about the topic in one of his own early jobs, which was pretty disgusting.

BA: It involved standing in a swamp holding up a surveyor stick, so they could measure where the swamp was. And it was in the middle of summer, so I was getting eaten alive by leeches on my feet and mosquitoes and blackflies on my torso. That job was soon to be finished, thank you.

AG: Fast forward a few decades, and Blake ended up leading a big study, interviewing and surveying people doing different kinds of dirty work.

BA: Dirty work is basically work that is stigmatized, either physically, socially or morally.

AG: You know the jobs that are physically dirty. Think sewer workers or morticians. But jobs can be socially stigmatized because of who you work around, like if you're a guard in a prison. And in morally dirty jobs ...

BA: The work you're doing is seen to be either sinful or at least of dubious virtue, or uses methods that are kind of invasive or intrusive. So if you're an exotic dancer or a tabloid reporter or a bill collector, for example.

AG: It seems to me that having a dirty job is an extreme case of rejection.

BA: Oh, it's very true. Everybody we've spoken to is acutely aware of how society sees them. And it's not flattering. So our question for them, among other ones, was basically: How do you deal with that?

AG: One of the coping strategies is to think about yourself as having multiple identities. When people reject you, it helps to remember there's another you.

BA: Yeah, and the good thing is that we all live multiple lives, right? So I'm a husband, an Arizonan, a hockey lover, a professor. And so we have enough of these identities that you can move your cognitive eggs around to whatever basket needs it at the moment.

AG: When you look at how Night deals with rejection, you can see him using this strategy. Early in his career, when one identity was rejected, he turned to others.

MNS: Yeah, that's a great and interesting thing. I guess I have been doing that. You know, when you're insecure in one, you lean on the other, one that's doing better at that time. Pliability is the definition of strength.

AG: Night's first unsuccessful film was a drama. So he tried expanding his identity by working in a different genre.

MNS: I wrote a script right around that time, a love story. And Fox ended up buying it.

AG: Night had shown his versatility. He hadn't just broadened the genres he worked in. He'd broadened his identity in another way, too. He wasn't just a director, he was a writer. Resilience doesn't just come from thinking about your multiple identities. It also comes from thinking about your multiple audiences. Who is evaluating you and your work? Whether that's the hiring managers who read your job applications, the editors who review your writing or the coaches who decide whether to cut you from the team, when you get rejected by an audience, it doesn't mean you're not qualified for other roles, other teams or other fields. Blake finds that when you're rejected by one person or group, it helps to remember that there are others out there who might accept you.

BA: At the end of the day, we all want to be loved. But as you realize, there are people out there who do value what you do. And the more you can hang on to that for your meaning, the more you can put the others in perspective, create social buffers. And if those people value what you do, it gives you a sense of affirmation. So you don't really feel the stigma from other people, because you're insulated by your closer circle that does value what you do. Not everybody has to love you, that's the cool part.

AG: After "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable," Night kept making original movies — "Signs," "The Village," "Lady in the Water," "The Happening." When critics were hard on a film, he remembered that they weren't the only audience. There are multiple segments of viewers.

MNS: There are groups, there's the critics, there's the bloggers, there's the audience. There isn't this "everyone felt this way."

AG: Night reminded himself that he wasn't making films for the couple hundred movie critics in America. He was making them for the millions of people watching around the world. He wanted to delight those audiences. And the easy path was to do more conventional work. They would get a predictable reaction.

MNS: I went, "Why didn't you just accept one of the movie offers that are coming your way? Why don't you just make whatever blah blah blah, part two, or part eight, or whatever it is?"

AG: But instead, he decided to keep doing original work and try to figure out what drove mixed reactions to his films. He realized that his signature is shifting genres during a film, for example, revealing that what you thought was a family drama, is, in fact, a supernatural movie with aliens or vampires.

MNS: "Psycho" would be an amazing example, because it's a bank robber movie at the beginning and then suddenly becomes a horror movie. So it switches genres.

AG: Different genres have different levels of emotional intensity.

MNS: Drama is at a certain level, and then thriller is at a certain level that's higher, and then horror is at a certain level that's even higher.

AG: When Night analyzed what viewers were saying, he realized that often when they struggled with a film, it was because he started that film in a high-intensity genre and then shifted to a less intense genre by the end. That's why that one critic compared "The Village," a psychological thriller about a community that seems to be threatened by supernatural monsters, to "Scooby-Doo."

MNS: The stakes went down from supernatural to a drama. You can't step down, you can step up, if you're bending genres, like I like to do.

AG: Audiences weren't rejecting him as a person or even as a filmmaker, but reacting when he had violated that principle, breaking from expectations in a way that was unfamiliar or uncomfortable. So he took that as a learning opportunity as he started working on his next film. In 2015, he wrote a screenplay and gave it to his agent. But his own agent rejected it, saying:

MNS: "This is not a commercial movie, this is a small movie, and no actor is going to want to do this." I came out of it — of course I was, you know, angry and upset and all of those things.

AG: Rejection hurts. You can't just ignore it.

MNS: You don't deny the feeling, right? Go into that feeling, don't pretend you're not feeling hurt by what that dude just said.

AG: Do you ever think that these kinds of rejections can actually make you better? Do you ever feel like you bounce forward, not just back?

MNS: "Iterate" is another word for failure. The exponential growth happens there. For me, it's, if you have tenacity, energy and iterate, you can do anything.

AG: Night made that film anyway, on a small budget he financed himself. He had a hunch that what he'd learned from studying previous rejections would make this film a hit. The movie was called "Split." It happened to be about multiple identities. And this time, when he switched genres, he increased the emotional intensity, raising it from thriller to supernatural.

(Clip) Woman: ... with multiple personalities. They can change their body chemistry with their thoughts.

AG: It was the most profitable film of all of 2017. When you face rejection, remember that it's not you being rejected by everyone. It's just one audience rejecting a sample of your work: a résumé or cover letter you submitted, an interview you gave, a product you produced. With some distance, you can see it as an opportunity to get better, which gives you less to fear and more room to grow. Because rejection ...

MNS: It burns off everything irrelevant. And then you're left with the purity of what's important.

(Theme music)

AG: WorkLife is hosted by me, Adam Grant. The show is produced by TED with Transmitter Media. Our team includes Colin Helms, Gretta Cohn, Dan O'Donnell, Grace Rubenstein, Michelle Quint, Angela Cheng and Janet Lee. This episode was produced by Jessica Glazer. Our show is mixed by Rick Kwan. Original music by Hahnsdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown. Ad stories produced by Pineapple Street Media. Special thanks to our sponsors: Hilton, Accenture, Bonobos and JPMorgan Chase.

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Next time on WorkLife: How to identify your strengths and prevent them from becoming your weaknesses.

Marcus Buckingham: No one has ever excelled because they stopped making grammatical errors in their writing.

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For their research, thanks to Naomi Eisenberger, Matthew Lieberman and Kipling Williams on the neuroscience of rejection, Rick Price and Amiram Vinokur on job loss, Marion Eberly and colleagues on attributing negative events to relationships, Kristin Neff and Mark Leary on self-compassion, Justin Berg and Aaron Kozbelt on the difficulty of judging your own creative work. And on identity threats, Claude Steele, David Sherman, Geoffrey Cohen and the late, great, Jenessa Shapiro.

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MNS: Let's pick "The Village."

AG: I love "The Village." Still afraid of "the bad color."

MNS: "'The Village' is a truly special film, one that has largely been misunderstood by the masses." There you go! Now we're talking. That guy's a genius.

(Laughter)