Transcript of salsa performer and instructor Magna Gopal’s TEDx Talk: The Benefits of Rejection @ TEDxJerseyCity conference.
Magna Gopal – Salsa performer and instructor
Good afternoon everyone. It’s exciting to be here.
Before I start, I’d like to ask all of you two simple questions.
With a show of hands, how many of you have wanted something and tried to get it by asking for it? Great. That’s all of us.
Now keep your hands up, if you have gotten everything that you asked for. Yeah, that’s what I thought. None of us.
So we’re at least on the same page. We have all had some of our requests refused. Or to put it in terms of my talk today, we have all experienced rejection.
Rejection is pervasive throughout our lives. I remember as a child I was always refused second servings of dessert. I’ve had school applications and job applications rejected.
I’ve asked to go out on dates and been turned down. And I’ve even asked for help from friends and sometimes been ignored.
Rejection exists everywhere, including in my industry. My career involves traveling the globe, teaching people how to connect through salsa dancing. Not sure how many of you are familiar with the dance, but for most of us the image that comes to mind is one of fun, passion, and lots of smiles.
It’s also a great environment to experience a lot of rejection and it’s actually where I learned the most about it.
When I first started dancing, I used to get asked to dance a lot. Could have been because I was always bubbly and smiling, or maybe just because I was a new face on the block. Either way I was always on the dance floor with very little effort of my party.
Eventually, however, people realized that I was an absolute beginner with zero technique. And dancing with me was a little bit more pain than pleasure. So naturally the requests to ask me to dance declined. And if I wanted to dance, I had to be the one asking.
Now it’s nerve-racking especially as a beginner, not knowing anyone to work up the courage and ask someone dance. It was even harder if that person happened to be surrounded by all of their cool friends. And then the hardest part was finally asking and hearing no.
Now maybe you’re thinking: So what Magna? You said it yourself we’ve all experienced rejection, we’ve all heard the word NO. What makes dance so different?
And you’re partially right, but let’s take the example of getting rejected from a job or a date. The chances of us asking again within seconds are pretty slim, most likely a few days, weeks or even months will pass before we make another attempt.
Partner dancing, on the other hand, takes rejection to a whole new level. Nowhere have I experienced as much rejection as I have in a dance. Let me take you through a typical night out to try and explain.
I would usually go out dancing for about three or four hours. The average song lasts five minutes. So that’s about 12 songs in an hour. I of course wanted to dance to all of them but initially I was getting rejected at least half the time, which meant six rejections in just one hour.
And sometimes if I really want us to dance to a particular song, I would ask until I got on the dance floor, which sometimes meant three or four rejections within the first 30 seconds of a song.
Those numbers are ridiculous. I can’t think of any other aspect of life where you have that many rejections in that short of a time.
Well, maybe telemarketing? I don’t know, but even then. Now the problem with rejection is not so much in the word NO, it’s the way it makes us feel.
Think about the last time you were rejected from something. How did you feel? Were you tense? Did your heart sink into your stomach? Did you feel defeated and worthless?
Now take that feeling and multiply it by the numbers and the frequency of rejections I was receiving, you might have an idea of how low I felt.
Of course, my initial reaction to this experience was: this sucks. I’m going to pretend it never happened.
But dance doesn’t afford that luxury, because if you wanted to improve, which I clearly did, you had to keep on dancing, and in order to dance you had to keep on asking, which basically meant every five minutes you had to set yourself up for another potential rejection.
And it took me some time to realize that rejection was like any other experience in life. There were lessons to be learned and opportunities for growth. I just had to find them but I couldn’t do that if I kept on pretending it never happened.
So I revisited some of those experiences. And the first lesson I learned was to not take rejection personally. Even if it was personal against my level of skill at that moment, it said nothing about my ability to improve and be better in the future.
The second lesson I learned was to take each request I made and each rejection I received like a case study and analyze it and refine my technique for asking — how I asked, when I asked, and whom I asked.
I ended up learning a lot more about myself and how to read people. And what I found was, when I took rejection personally, I was hurt and I was disappointed. Sure maybe my first and second rejections were full of enthusiasm with this big smile and a hi, would you like to dance?
But after getting that smile, but after getting rejected a couple of times, I was dull and resentful. I had a look of misery on my face and my requests sounded more like you want to dance, no? How about you? You want to dance? Okay, maybe I didn’t turn into grumpy cat.
But needless to say, people were rejecting my negative energy well before I had a chance to ask them for anything. When I switched and stopped making it personal, and focused instead on my goal of getting on the dance floor and having fun, my entire demeanor was much more positive and pleasant. I was confident and accepting of whatever answer I would receive.
Add to that the fact that I no longer asked just anyone and everyone to dance but I focused my efforts on asking people that seemed equally enthusiastic about getting on the dance floor.
Well, you can guess, I ended up getting a lot more yeses. And this whole experience helped me redefine success as not just including the yes but also including this learning process. And these two tools that I used, learning from it and not taking it personally, were invaluable not only in my dance life but also in my personal and professional life in dealing with rejection.
But there’s a flipside. Clearly if someone is receiving a rejection, someone is dishing it out. And I’m not sure about all of you but as hard as it is for me to hear the word NO, it’s always been much harder for me to tell someone NO, because if saying No hurts, then I’m responsible for hurting someone.
And since hurting someone isn’t socially acceptable, I always had this feeling that rejecting someone wasn’t either. Unfortunately, we live in this world where being agreeable is praised over being objectionable, where sacrificing your wants and desires are held in higher regard than standing up for them.
Where when I say yes, people call me a sweetheart. And when I say no people call me a bitch. We feel entitled when asking and obliged when asked. In my dance community it’s no different.
In fact, there’s this unspoken expectation that if someone works up the courage and asks you to dance, you better honor it and say yes no matter what, because rejecting them would have a negative impact on them.
Sure when I was doing all the asking, couldn’t agree more. But when I improved and started being asked more often, I realized that saying yes could also have a negative impact. So I had to learn how and when it was important to say NO.
Unfortunately, my lesson came in the form of an injury. For a little bit of background information, my reputation in my dance community is one of this kind and sweet energizer bunny who dances all night with everyone and almost never says NO. But then I got injured, sprained ankle, and broke my toe twice on the same foot.
And despite the pain, my fear of losing my reputation outweighed any respect I had for my body. It was only after three years of being at sub-optimal health that I realized if I didn’t learn how to say NO and take care of myself, I could cause permanent damage to my body.
So finally learning how to say NO helped me recover and get back into dance full force. So obviously this was a case where my rejection was a benefit to me.
But there are plenty of occasions in dance where my rejection was also a benefit to someone else. As I mentioned before, salsa dancing is a social dance, which involves a lot of asking. And sure there were times when I was on the fence when asked, but once I said yes I ended up having a great time.
But there were also times when I really didn’t want to dance with the person that asked me. And whatever the reason when I caved and I said yes, I ended up causing more harm than good, because my heart and my mind were elsewhere. I was distracted. Sometimes I was even annoyed and resentful for feeling like I got sucked into doing something I didn’t want to do.
I might have been smiling but it wasn’t genuine. And I’m sure my body language revealed that by avoiding eye contact, easily irritated, dismissive of my partner’s enjoyment, and just not participating wholeheartedly.
I treated my partner like a chore that I couldn’t wait to finish. I know that sounds harsh but it’s the truth, and I’d like to think that I’m a great person once you get to know me. But if that five-minute introduction was all you had, I doubt you’d want to spend another minute in my presence. At least that’s how I felt when I danced with someone like that.
So these days if I feel I can’t be a 100% present I’d rather say NO, because my partner deserves better than that.
Now these are examples in dance but there are plenty of moments like this in life as well.
Think about the time that you weren’t feeling well and you didn’t want to go out and your friends begged you to come out and you said yes. Were you miserable and complaining even if it was to yourself? Did you end up feeling worse the next day, because you should have stayed home and rested?
I know it’s hard to say NO especially to those people that are close to us, but if we can’t be our best, then why are we ruining their day also?
Or how about that time you said yes to a second date with that person that you had zero interest in, because you didn’t want to be mean? Was it nicer to get their hopes up unnecessarily? Did you think that they wanted to spend their valuable time planning a special dinner only to have you sit there for two hours revealing your lack of interest with your short replies and your frequent glances at your cellphone?
If a five-minute dance can have such an impact on us, what do you think the impact of a two-hour dinner would be?
Now when we look at things this way, meaning when we look at the consequences of our words and our actions, I hope we can start to see where our responsibility lies in all of it, and why it’s important to say NO sometimes.
Our definition of rejection makes us think that we’re delivering an insult when we say NO. So I understand why there is hesitancy but we can see that it can also come from a place of respect and consideration.
Think of the examples I just mentioned. Would you rather receive an honest two-second NO or spend hours or more in the presence of a dishonest yes?
Not sure about all of you but painful as it may be I would prefer the honesty. An honesty is important, it’s crucial, but the actual line between respect and insults lies in the delivery. And the key to a good delivery is empathy.
Whether we are receiving or delivering a rejection we are dealing with human beings, treating them with compassion, politeness and respect makes it much easier for us to speak openly. And when we don’t take or make things personal and our kind with our words, people are more receptive to what we have to say.
We can’t necessarily control their reaction to our rejection but at least we can walk away with a clear conscience when we’ve taken extra care to be sensitive when delivering it.
I know personally switching from this attitude of entitlement and obligation to one of understanding and respect has significantly improved not only my dances but also my relationships off the dance floor. I’m more present now because I value other people’s time and I take responsibility for my choices.
I’m more generous, because I know that at least I will respect my boundaries and my limits. And I’m kinder because I always engage from a place of empathy.
It’s empowering to take control of your yes’s and your no’s and it’s liberating to not feel obliged when asked and to not feel like a victim of rejection. And this comfort with saying NO is fantastic but getting comfortable with saying NO is not so that we can walk out into the world rejecting new people and new experiences right left and center. It’s just to enable us to be honest about what we want and what we can give at any particular moment.
Rejection does not have to be this monster that we’re scared to confront, or scared to release; it is just an answer to a question unless we define it differently.
And compassion, empathy, resilience — these are all skills that we can develop. I’ve worked on them mainly through dance but I get plenty of opportunities in life to do that as well, and so do you.
So the next time you have to deal with rejection, don’t take it personally. Try to learn from it.
And the next time you have to deliver a rejection, be kind, respectful, empathetic and know that your honesty in that moment is not an insult. It is the greatest sign of respect that you can show to yourself and to someone else.
Now before I wrap up, I would like to share a short poem that I had written. It was at the TEDx speaker workshop we were asked to summarize the impact of our speech in a haiku and I hope that these words will have an impact on you as well.
Now we are both here, present and sincere. This is how we choose to live.
Thank you very much.