This is a three part series on what gymnastics taught me about acquiring and mastering skills, overcoming fear and delivering clutch performances.

Kovacs highbar you afraid

I think most gymnasts consider pain and fear our twin companions. I certainly did. Gymnastics requires that athletes constantly challenge themselves to do more, much more. Routines that were performed in the Olympics in 2000 are being done by 15 year-olds in 2011. To learn new skills, you have to put yourself in scary situations.

One of the most important characteristics of a great gymnast is the ability to overcome fear and do what needs to be done. The stakes are higher: if you mess up a layup or a serve, not much is going to happen If you mess up on a Kovacs (the skill pictured above and in the video below) you could hit your face or slam your chest into a metal bar. And trust me, that does not feel good.

Ultimately, fear is about a mismatch in your mind between what you are capable of and what the environment demands of you. So to reduce fear, you have to address each of the elements – the risk of the environment, your capabilities and your mindset.

Reduce Risk

Fear usually isn’t a bad thing. It’s your brains way of telling you that it thinks you are in danger – that you risking bodily harm. And when you’re just starting to learn a new skill – your brain is probably right!

So the key here is to reduce risk – both perceived and actual – and prevent that harm from befalling you.

Getting Spotted – this is when your coach uses his hands to support, hold, push and pull you through the skill. You’re lacking the speed, agility or power to complete the move on your own, so he helps you with the last mile. See this video as an example.

Protective Surfaces – a big part of your fear is that you’re going to eat it and slam into the equipment in the wrong way and hurt yourself. Often your coach or teammate can slide a mat, or somehow pad/soften the area that could otherwise really hurt. Of course this doesn’t always work.

(Video: Kovacs Crash. From the video info: “Me eating it hahahah it didnt hurt but it was pretty scary”. Turn down the sound .. there’s a loud rock song playing in the background)


So if you’re scared of something – find ways to reduce your risk. Are you afraid to talk to pitch an investor? Start by pitching your rich uncle. He’s less intimidating and fewer bad things will happen if you “blow it”. If you’re scared to do your routine of jokes at Open Mic night at your local bar, start by doing a few jokes at your next house party. Find ways to simulate the thing you’re scared of, but in a place where you feel more comfortable / safe.

Increase Your Capacity

After reducing the danger of the external environment, the next step is to build up your own capacity – to both do the skill and to absorb the consequences of screwing it up.

Get Better: This is generally an issue of skill acquisition. Develop your fundamentals, break the skill down into parts, practice deliberately and visualize.

Get Tougher: Have you noticed that most gymnasts are ripped? Our muscles help us perform these crazy hard skills – and also protect us when we crash. Gymnasts are also very familiar with pain. When you know you can take a beating and bounce back then things become less scary. Notice how Alexy just walks off after brutally slamming his shins on the metal bar and falling onto his head.

Video: alexy bilozertchev high bar accident


So if you are afraid of something, get better at it and build your tolerance for facing what it is you fear (rejection, pain, failure). Are you afraid of talking to women at bars? Practice. Get good at making interesting conversation with strangers. Do rejection therapy and toughen yourself up so that rejections don’t hurt you as much. Are you scared to ask your boss for a raise? Kick serious ass at work and make the raise a no brainer. Build up a savings account and a great reputation so when you tell him “More or I’m gone” you can mean it.

Man Up and Just Do It

The final thing I learned about overcoming fear is that you’ve got to man up and just do it. It works like this:

You do the drills. You practice with mats. You do the conditioning. You get spotted. And one day your coach steps back and says: “Ok, this one on your own.”

Even if you know you’re ready, you know you can do it and you know you can safely handle a mistake, you can still feel paralyzed with fear. One technique that works:

Have fun with it. Feel the fear, laugh, and then go do it.

Fear tightens you up. It makes you stiff. By taking the whole situation lightly and having fun with it, you get yourself limber, loose and flexible – and much more likely to make it, or recover from a setback. One person who laughs in the face of fear was Rico, a Stanford alumni.

In this video he has not been training gymnastics seriously for over 3 years and does a full twisting kovacs and grabs with ONE HAND. This is nuts – no one does one arm grabs on purpose. He did it by accident the year before and then did it INTENTIONALLY that time. I was at this meet, it was incredible.

(Video: Kolman catch with one arm – Rico Andrade


Once you’ve prepared adequately for the thing you’re afraid of, created an environment where the risk was controlled and built up your toughness and resilience so you can handle a mistake, then the only thing left to do is go for it. Man up. If you feel yourself tightening up, find something about the situation to laugh at. If you can see the situation as fun, exciting and interesting, you will no longer be afraid. Just go for it!

Well, that’s what gymnastics taught me about overcoming fear. Next week I’ll do my final post on what I learned about delivering clutch performances.

NOTE: The Rejection Therapy iPhone app just came out. Now you can access a plethora of rejection ideas and stay on track with your challenge with your phone! Get it here.

Today marks the end of the 30 day Rejection Therapy Challenge that I, rather abruptly, decided to embark upon a little over 4 weeks ago [1].  It’s been a pretty epic journey.

In Week 1, I got my feet wet with some silly and meaningless rejections. In Week 2, I was more bold and asked for some rather unorthodox things – some of which I got, many I didn’t. In Week 3, I got serious. I didn’t want this turning into “what kind of crazy things will Jason ask for next?”

This week, I want to be reflective. I’ll recap some more of my rejection & rejection attempts, share what’s happened since I started all this and offer some lessons I’ve learned. And plug the seriously awesome Rejection Therapy Cards.


The last two weeks I’ve focused on getting more “meaningful” rejections, aka rejections for things I really wanted or wanted to offer. This means that there are less “silly” rejections (though still a few) but I think they better served the goal of this challenge.

  • I walked down my street a couple days and said “Good Morning!” to everyone I walked passed. A lot of people totally blew me off.
  • One time I even carried a bucket of candy and offered it to people – which very few people took me up on. [2]
  • I met a guy on Caltrain who worked on the freight trains that ran from South San Francisco and asked if he’d let me ride in one of the box cars sometime. Nope
  • Someone asked me for directions and I offered to walk them there – but they didn’t need it.
  • I asked a coffee shop if I could get a photo of myself pretending to make coffee and they let me do it! Then I asked if I could check out their upstairs office – and they turned me down.
  • I offered the seat next to mine to a guy who was squatting on the stairs on Caltrain but he didn’t want it.
  • I was playing undercover capture the flag and I asked some of the opposing players if they could NOT tag me. Nope.
  • I asked the bartender at Chevy’s if he could personally make me the “Guac-My-Way” gucamole. Apparently it wasn’t in his job description.
  • I told a few friends about a web app idea I had – and they both flat out rejected it. They didn’t think it was helpful or that anyone would use it. [3]


I originally called these “rejection attempts” but really they’re more like places where I was maybe apprehensive and could have gotten rejected. The list is as important, if not more, as the list of rejections. You learn to get more comfortable requesting help and doing things that you normally would shy away from. Sometimes you can be surprised by what people are willing to offer up.

  • On various occasions, I asked people to help me do things in the gym like move weights, work in on a piece of equipment, etc
  • I asked if I could borrow my friend’s brand new car and he was cool with it.
  • I invited someone I had recently met to a house party.
  • Even though I’m not signed up for the special treatment, I got free towels from the gym on several occasions.
  • I put my arm around a girl I like and she leaned in.
  • I asked the waitress for the pepper grinder after she “peppered” our table and she let me keep it.
  • I asked if I could get a ride down to LA for Thanksgiving and I got the thumbs up.


Rejection Therapy has really captured a lot of people’s interest – it certainly got mine. As some of you have noticed, these posts have gotten traction and sparked discussion on Hacker News. A lot of people have emailed me saying they want to do the challenge. The Facebook group is getting pretty interesting. I was put in touch with a reporter from SF Chronicle who is doing a story on it. Jason Comely (the creator of Rejection Therapy) and I are even starting a podcast (episode 1 here).

The whole thing has been really awesome and aside from a few people who now think I’m a total nutcase, it’s been really positive. I’m glad I gave it a shot and I only hope my experiences can inspire more people to push their boundaries and try things they otherwise wouldn’t.


Fear of rejection was once very important to our well-being. Human beings lived for hundreds of thousands of years as tribes of hunter-gatherers.  If you found yourself rejected by your tribe/village, you were most likely going to freeze or starve to death. There was a good reason to be afraid of it.

Rejection today is much more benign. If a girl decides not to give you her number, if a college doesn’t admit you, if your raise request isn’t granted, so what? Nothing dramatically bad will happen to you. Your ability to live a happy and successful life is virtually unimpeded.

The idea behind the Rejection Therapy is that life much more open-ended that many people think. If you have an idea – try it. If you have a question – ask it. If you have a desire – pursue it. [4] The downside is relatively low, but the upside could be massive.

I’m also more ok about asking for help.

I love to help others but I often avoid asking for help. This isn’t really due to a fear of rejection, but the challenge has made me more comfortable with asking for things I need. People get satisfaction from helping others – so why not give them the opportunity to feel good about themselves?

Ultimately the challenge has helped me take things less personally.

I realized that people rejected me not because there was something fundamentally wrong with me as a human being, but because they just weren’t interested in the offer I presented them. The rejection is probably 20% about the content of my offer and 80% about their mindset, current situation, and other factors way outside of my control.

So go ahead and get rejected. I dare you. Some awesome things just might happen.


[1] (started the Challenge rather abruptly) I have to give a shout out to my friend Christine, who is the reason I first discovered and thought to try Rejection Therapy in the first place.

[2] (giving away candy) Though I ended up giving most of it away to a homeless guy towards the end.

[3] (rejecting my web app idea) You might say that they didn’t reject ME, they rejected MY IDEA. But really, part of the lesson here is that people are almost never rejecting you as a person – as a human being. They are rejecting your offer/actions/request. And you don’t have to take that personally.

[4] (if you have a desire – pursue it) And if you want help doing Rejection Therapy, let me know. I’m not going to reject you. =) Email me (jasonyshen[at]gmail[dot]com) and let’s talk. Oh – and get the cards too.

As many of you know, I’ve been doing this thing called the Rejection Therapy Challenge – created by another Jason – Jason Comely. [1]. It’s still going on and I’m getting a lot out of it (more in another post) but this week instead of continuing to write about MY rejections, I wanted to focus on YOU.

Many people have expressed interest (either through comments on HN/this site, via email or in person) in doing a rejection challenge themselves. I get a real kick out of hearing this because I love it when people decide to challenge themselves and go outside their comfort zones. At the same time, I get a little sad because I know that most people [2] won’t actually follow through with it.

Why? I think the reasons fall into two buckets:

1) Asking for things and getting rejected is uncomfortable

In some ways, the Rejection Therapy Challenge is a really weird thing. Who would go out of their way to do this? Someone who is a little crazy – and I don’t think people really like identifying as a border-line nutcase. [3]

Most people don’t like to impose on others because it makes them feel bad. Most people are afraid to ask for what they really want. We were always told not to talk to strangers so it feels dangerous sometimes. All these uncomfortable feelings are an important part of Rejection Therapy but they can wear on you and make doing the challenge very uncomfortable.

SOLUTION: Accept and embrace the discomfort. Let fear be your guide. I promise that doing Rejection Therapy exposes you to very minimal downside (just don’t ask for anything REALLY stupid and you’re fine). However, the upside is great – this experiment can introduce some amazing stories and interesting opportunities that are well worth the risk and last beyond the 30 days.

2) New behaviors are difficult to maintain

Developing new habits is hard. That’s why most people fail to achieve their New Year’s Resolutions. Rejection Therapy is a very unconventional new behavior (compared to something like “going to the gym”) which makes it a little more awkward for you to share with friends. It’s easy to to fall back into old routines or just skip a day.

It also requires you to keep thinking of new things to get rejected from and trust me, that can be pretty difficult. You’re also doing the challenge in isolation for the most part – none of your friends are doing it – which makes it less fun. We know that commitment can be very powerful – but staying motivated for 30 days is hard.

SOLUTION: Get someone to do it with you. Or at least be your accountability partner. This means you’ll have someone who will share stories with you, brainstorm rejection ideas and be your cheerleader when you get down. Hell, I’ll even be your partner if you want. If you email me at [jasonyshen]@[gmail].[com] with the subject: “Rejection Therapy Accountability Partner” I’ll see what I can do!

So that’s what I got this week. My rejection attempts roll onward and you’ll get a full recap next week, promise. In the meantime, I hope this post helped you get a little closer to doing your own Rejection Therapy Challenge. If you do decide to do it, with or without my help – please drop me a line! I’d love to know.


[1](Jason Comely)  I’ve actually met the guy and he’s really cool. Definitely a more reserved person (he basically created the game to push himself into more social situations) but very smart and nice guy. We’re cooking up some interesting plans so stay tuned..

[2] (most people won’t follow through) Wherever I refer to “people” in these following paragraphs note that I’m extrapolating ideas from personal reflection, conversations with others, and a lot of self-directed study into psychology and behavioral economics. I don’t presume to speak for the people who’ve said they want to do the challenge.

[3] (identifying as a borderline nutcase) But normalcy is overrated. Do you know what else isn’t normal? Winning – anything. By definition, winners are not normal. Neither are millionaires and successful startup founders. Life is too short to be normal.

The plot thickens as I continue into the 2nd week of the Rejection Therapy Challenge. (I posted previously about week 1 rejections.)

A recap for new readers: I’ve taken on a 30 day challenge where I need to get personally rejected by someone every single day. I was inspired by to try it and thought it might be fun and help me get out of my comfort zone. I’ve been documenting this stuff on my blog.

INSIGHTS: I think the rejections this week are more interesting and more “real” than last week which I think is great (of course you can be the judge). I’ve also noticed that the challenge is making me more open to talking with strangers – because they might hold a rejection opportunity. It makes me more aware of my surroundings in general. I see that I’m exposing myself to serendipity, as Paul Buchheit recommends. It’s fun, a little stressful at times and as a fringe benefit, it’s makes for a great introductory story when meeting new people.


We were out for isocket team lunch and noticed a really nice, brand new Jaguar parked out in front of the restaurant. Later when we’re finishing up lunch we see the owner talking to someone and getting ready to drive off. I run outside and tell him I think he has a really nice car and ask if I could sit in it. He agrees. We talk briefly about why he got the car and how long he’s had it. As he push button starts the car, I ask if I could take it for a spin – he laughs and says no. REJECTION!


Today I got a free V8 with tea infusion from some promoter on the street. Later I run into a homeless guy who  asks for change. I offer the V8 bottle and he refuses! I even ask again “are you sure?” in my most persuasive voice – still no. REJECTION!

Later I was working at Starbucks before a Doctor’s appointment and ended up taking a 25 min phone call with a potential customer. When I ended the call, the old lady sitting across the table from me leaned over and said “I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t think that phone call was appropriate.”

She then proceeded to lay into me about how Starbucks isn’t my home office and how phone calls ruin the coffee shop atmosphere. I took it all in good stride and she ended up shaking my hand as she left – I tried hard not to be say anything to provoke her. More amused than anything else at the UNPROMPTED REJECTION!


I was eating lunch at a small Vietnamese place in Burlingame and started joking with the owner about how maybe I could do the dishes instead of paying. She kind of went along with it at first, saying I’d need to wash 8 buckets in 2 hrs and dry them etc. Since that was not really a rejection, I decided to push it by actually pretending like I was going to do it.

At the end of the meal I said “OK, let’s do this!” I took off my jacket, put dishes into the tray and started busing the table. She’s lets me do all this and I start getting nervous. I walk into the back room to start washing the dishes and finally she’s says “Alright, you can stop! I was just joking!” I smile, and silently whisper thanks. REJECTED!

Later that night I was at dinner with friends in Palo Alto when I saw a girl who kind of looked someone I had met a while back. I tried saying her name and seeing if she responded. She didn’t. But she was so *almost* like the person I knew that I just went up to her group and asked if her name was Rui. “Nope it’s not.” she says.

I ask her name. She says she won’t tell me but shell let me guess. The guy next to her says it starts with a “J”. I guess Jessica. Wrong. Jennifer. Wrong. Then she tells me in a condescending tone that her name doesn’t even start with a “J”. EPIC GROUP REJECTION!

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