on innovation

The Rejection Gene C.Z. Nnaemeka
Published: July 2010 – MIT Entrepreneurship Review
Greek god, Five Labours

Nikolas M., a friend of mine — a classmate, really — is the definition of mischievously handsome: 90% cheekbones, 10% daredevil. He is not just attractive relative to MIT standards; he is magnetic and dashing in the absolute. Tall and bronzed and chiseled with dark twinkling eyes, he has the look of a Greek god if you could intercept a Greek god saying “Whatever dude.” I specify all of this because Nikolas recently returned from a trip to Panama*, his first and “definitely [my] last” during which he was summarily dismissed by every single woman he approached. “Every last one. I got nothing; they were turning me down like I had the plague or something.” Back in the States, at a party a few weeks ago, Nikolas, his friend Roman, and I were joined by some guests, one of whom was a Panamanian lady. Undaunted — or perhaps thrilled — by her provenance, Nikolas, spent the better half of the evening trying — and failing — to charm her. “I don’t think she even looked at him,” Roman told me. “No, she did.” Nikolas interrupted, in what I thought was an attempt at ego rehabilitation, “but there was hatred in her eyes.” “That sucks, bro.”

One of the reasons entrepreneurship so favors the male sex in early adulthood is because of the relationship of young males to risk and rejection. Nikolas’ episodes — as sad as they are funny — are intriguing because of his seeming immunity to rejection. His experiences made me wonder how relevant his resistance to rejection was to honing the entrepreneurial mindset. And on a campus soaked in entrepreneurial fervor, where the question du jour is “How do we churn out more female entrepreneurs?”, Nikolas’ adventures made me wonder whether women were not at a disadvantage in the entrepreneurial game, simply because they do not entertain the same relationship to risk and rejection that men do. My sense is that by the time they are 18, most boys are far more amenable psychologically to entrepreneurship than most girls are because of the coping mechanisms boys have developed. I will call this disposition, this inclination towards entrepreneurship, e-inclination, if you will. Why is, it seems, that more men are e-inclined than women?

From as young as 6 years old, male and female perceptions of risk differ substantially. Studies of American children have shown that girls, on the whole, assess risk by evaluating the probability that a given activity will lead to injury (How likely will I get hurt if I jump off this swing?) whereas boys, on the whole, judge risk by the severity of the injury an activity might cause (How badly will I get hurt if I jump off this swing?). This radically different philosophy of risk would be damning enough if it weren’t further complicated by the dating game come the teeenage years. Why is that?

Boys — condemned to involuntary singlehood unless they make the first move — are primed (or forced into) risk-taking. And not just risk-taking. Approaching someone romantically also requires supreme levels of confidence and optimism, market information, sales & marketing, resilience, and trace amounts of desperation. On the other hand, girls, being the pursued party, have no need — or urgency — to acquire any of these traits. All of these skills also happen to be indispensable to the entrepreneur. (I distinguish the ‘entrepreneur’ from merely the ‘businessperson’ because I do not believe that they share the same attitudinal DNA. I will expand on this later.)

To risk asking is to risk rejection. To be rejected by someone and to try again -– either with the same person or with someone else -– requires all of the aforementioned entrepreneurial qualities, plus perseverance and self-delusion. Post-rejection, the typical male calculus is as follows:
A) who does she think she is to say no to me? She is not that smart/cool/funny anyway…;
B) am I extrinsically flawed? ie. I’m a good person but my delivery was lacking: corny pickup lines, poor timing, sloppy appearance, etc.;
C) am I intrinsically flawed? ie. I’m a terrible person, I’m dumb, I’m hideous, etc…

Reactions to a rejection are normally distributed. 9% of boys, the “Atonal arrogants,” will leave thinking A) (“there’s absolutely nothing wrong with me; she’s the problem”) and continue their egocentric, tone-deaf forays into hostile female territory.
72% of boys, the “Rubber band pragmatists,” will conclude mostly B) with some combination of A) and C), and they will try their luck again. Finally, the remaining 9%, the “Cowed catastrophists”, will think C) (“I’m worthless”) and consider their rejection an outsized catastrophe. They will remove themselves indefinitely from the dating game and not make a move on anyone for the foreseeable future.

Where most boys succeed (the Rubber bands who bounce back) is that they interpret a romantic rejection as primarily a rejection of a product, not a rejection of a person. Consciously or not, their brain acts as a cognitive centrifuge, delicately separating ‘person’ from ‘product’. Of course, too strong a separation of person and product (the Arrogants) can lead to egomania; too weak (the Catastrophists), to self-loathing. But, the result is that most boys gradually learn — during their formative teenage years, from their attempts at courtship –- to not take rejection personally, and to not take rejection disproportionately.

Asking someone out is not unlike trying to start a business, especially when that business is a technology-based startup that might require raising significant amounts of capital. You will be met with rejection –- from investors, customers, friends, family, hapless observers, perennial cynics. Just as the Rubber bands, the entrepreneur needs to be both tough and elastic — responding to rejection with a mixture of skepticism, self-reflection, and self-scrutiny. An entrepreneur cannot survive if his or her recovery strategy consists in thinking A) that the market is wrong or C) that they themselves are utter failures.

Now, by the time an American girl has reached womanhood, the quality and quantity of her rejections differ dramatically from those of a comparable American boy upon manhood.
The young woman would have experienced an average of 3.0 significant rejections:
1) rejection from an institution (ie. she applied to a university and was denied);
2) rejection from a club (she tried out for a play or sports team and was not selected);
3) rejection from a social circle (she was one day ejected from her group of friends, or worse, never allowed to join any group of friends).
For a young man, in that same time period, the number would be about 13: the sum of the aforementioned rejections -– institution, club, social circle -– plus 10 or so rejections by girls in whom he had expressed interest. A small minority of girls is lucky to make it through adolescence rejection-free.

The small number and large impact of the rejections that girls suffer makes these girls more prone to being Catastrophists, and to think c) that they are intrinsically flawed, ie. the person and the product are the same. How many bright 17-year old girls having been denied admission to Stanford or Smith or Sciences Po, walk away asking ‘Who does College X think they are to reject me?’ Whereas most boys have their friends, humour, and past rejections to short-circuit defeatist thinking, most girls are not so privileged. This is borne out by research conducted at Duke’s social psychology lab, where they found that girls were more likely to internalise their disappointments than boys, which leads to higher rates of depression. This self-criticism and brooding leaves them disadvantaged when they enter their 20s and start forging their professional paths.

Boys don’t necessarily get off scot-free, though: their tendency to externalise assumes both positive (playing sports) and negative forms (abusing drugs and alcohol). Dueling attributions are also at work here: girls, generally, will fall back on effort attribution (Having expended all their efforts and still failed, they will conclude that they are not that talented); boys, generally, will slip into ability attribution (They have all the ability, and the reason for their failure was due to other causes — lack of preparation, poor instructors, etc.).

Anyone who’s observed 6 year-old children at play would not be surprised. While seemingly ADD-addled boys rage hyperactively around enclosed places, howling ‘But I can’t control myself!’, hyper-literate hyper-articulate girls sit civilly, discussing cupcakes, caregiving, and Kant. Girls –- self-confident and poised, clever negotiators, dazzling flirts, and keen observers -– by nature and nurture, are the more e-inclined sex until age 18. Who comes to mind when you think of a child selling baked goods or setting up a lemonade stand? Girls. Who are the first to be gainfully self-employed during adolescence? Girls, in large part due to babysitting. And who operates the cartel, which every spring unloads kilos of Thin Mint and Samoa cookies onto the American market? Again, girls, under the aegis of the nobly-minded, community-serving Girl Scouts organisation.

Which brings us to an earlier point: are these girls entrepreneurs or businesspeople? In a sharp, ultra-engaging New Yorker piece, ‘The Myth of the Daredevil Entrepreneur,’ Malcolm Gladwell seemed to commingle the two. I didn’t agree with his thesis — that entrepreneurs were not as risk-disposed as commonly thought –- because I didn’t agree with one of his premises: namely, that managers of financial vehicles were entrepreneurs. Yes, these entities — hedge funds, private equity and venture capital shops — are usually started and run by a self-employed person. But having worked with and for such funds, I’d be hard-pressed to consider any of the men and women at their helm “entrepreneurs”, simply for their abilities –- however impressive — to harvest, invest, and deploy capital.

And perhaps it is the same with the babysitters and the Girl Scouts: they are making money but they are not innovating, not making a new product or service for a market (each scout is really akin to a franchisee, and the babysitters, like the money managers, are not creating a product de novo, but are simply providing a service to a market for which all the configurations have already been specified.) Does the hedge fund principal take risks? Sure. But these are speculative risks, not entrepreneurial ones. Otherwise, I know a few Vegas trips that could be written off as entrepreneurial ventures. Or maybe, ensconced as I am in the bowels of MIT tech startup-obsession, it is my own definition of entrepreneurship that is too narrow?

If we assume entrepreneurship to be a net positive, for society and for the individual, then what do we do to better equip girls, and eventually women for the mindset it requires? For the risk-taking, rejection, and resilience it demands? Neuroscientists and social psychologists have been building on the work of S. Turner to study how to better prepare children to respond to failure. As it stands, the girls who are best at dealing with rejection — the high-level athletes and serious artists (musicians, actresses, dancers…) — are the ones, who, by virtue of their early dedication and talent, are NOT available later, as young women, to become entrepreneurs.

I titled this piece the Rejection gene, but it’s a misnomer. Some people are more risk-taking and resilient than others — true, but I don’t believe that it is a genetic phenomenon exclusive to some select cohort or select sex. We have a lazy tendency to label ‘genetic’ those behaviors that are difficult to engineer into (or out of) humans. Instead we go looking for a gene (a fat gene, stress gene, shy gene), deploying millions of dollars on research to plumb DNA, when it is possible that a clever, quirky experiment could isolate the behavior sought and identify the motivations for the behavior.

Legendary, now-deceased, management guru Michael Hammer, author of ‘Reengineering the Corporation’, and a former MIT computer science professor, contended that nothing was better for building an innovation-seeking mindset than a solid engineering education. But putting aside the women and engineering conundrum (a decades-long dilemma), what education’ -– academic or real-life — arms young girls with a risk-taking and rejection-tolerating mindset? How do we program this ‘rejection gene’ into the next generation of women, so that, come their 20s, they are as inclined to launch startups as their male counterparts? or as inclined as they would like to be?

Not all risks are created equal; romantic risks seems unusually suited to the vicissitudes of entrepreneurship. Is a gender revolution what will ultimately change the face of Silicon Valley? An upheaval in which women do the chasing while men wait idly by their iPhones, wearing facial masks and rereading passages from The Rules? The Kaufman Foundation, MIT Entrepreneurship Center, and ASTIA – amongst many entrepreneurship-focused think tanks in the U.S. – are seeking to redress the imbalance. Until we figure out how and why it really exists, I can see how searching for a ‘rejection gene’ might sound like a more straightforward gamble.

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