Entrepreneurs

How People With High Emotional Intelligence Use the ‘Fortune Cookie Rule’ to Become Exceptionally Resilient

I think we should start with the high school humor, and then work our way toward the emotional intelligence. 

When I was a teenager, some friends and I used to frequent a Chinese restaurant. A girl who was sort of the center of the group and the life of the party-;let’s call her Jessica-;introduced us to a “PG-13” joke that you probably know.

It went like this. At the end of every meal, we’d get fortune cookies, and we’d read the fortunes out loud. Then, we’d pause and look at Jessica.

With perfect timing, she’d add the same two words to the end of each fortune: “In bed.”

  • For example, my fortune might read: “Focus, determination, and hard work will always pay off…”
  • And Jessica would add, “In bed!”

It made almost every fortune funny:

  • “Challenge and adventure awaits!” (“In bed.”)
  • “Your road to success may be bumpy, but it will also be glorious.” (“In bed.”)
  • “Everyone knows fear, but not everyone learns bravery. (“In bed.”)

Here we are, decades later, and I cannot imagine of a fortune cookie without automatically adding the words, “in bed.” 

OK. Enough about memory lane. Let’s fast-forward to the present, and how people with high emotional intelligence learn to use this trick, which we’re calling the Fortune Cookie Rule, to become especially resilient.

The Fortune Cookie Rule is about training yourself to reclassify almost any criticism or rejection so that it encourages you rather than discourages you — or at least falls into the realm of the irrelevant-;by learning to append simple, silent phrases to it in your mind.

I started realizing this technique after detecting a pattern in the way that a significant number of successful people described overcoming initial rejection.

It wasn’t the most obvious phenomenon at first. The descriptions always seemed to come in the context of longer discussions, and nobody really mentioned emotional intelligence. 

But whether they called it anything or not, it really was all about emotional intelligence.

Here’s an example. Recently, we interviewed the mega-best-selling author, James Patterson, for my daily newsletter at Understandably.com. 

One small part of our wide-ranging discussion focused on how Patterson reacted to the 31 rejections he got before his first novel was finally accepted.

In short, as Patterson described it, he learned not to hear, “rejection.” Instead, he somehow always heard: “This one isn’t right for me, but maybe your next one.”

Another example: Brian Acton is a multi-billionaire and the former co-founder of WhatsApp. Back in 2009, he was a successful programmer who nevertheless kept getting turned down for high-profile jobs and documenting his rejections on Twitter.

Each account is so cheery. What was it that led him to accept them and find the bright side? It’s partly about confidence, but also about context: Just learning to view rejection as if there’s obviously another part left unsaid that would explain it in a positive or neutral way.

Allow me to add just one more example, since I’m big into the Rule of 3s.

How about Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, who once shared verbatim some of the no-thank-you emails he and his co-founders got after being introduced to the highest-profile investors in Silicon Valley:

  • Investor No. 1: “Not in our area of focus…
  • Investor No. 2: “The potential market opportunity did not seem large enough for our required model.”
  • Investor No. 3: “It’s not in one of our five prime target markets, so it’s a long shot for involvement.”
  • Investor No. 4: “I really like the progress you guys have made, but between issues outstanding with ABB and my current time commitments to other projects … I’m not going to be able to proceed.”
  • Investor No. 5: “We’ve always struggled with travel as a category. We recognize it’s one of the top e-commerce categories but for some reason, we’ve not been able to get excited about travel-related businesses.”

O.K., what did Chesky tell himself in order to put the rejections in the category of “not right for me” instead of assuming they implied the more discouraging, “not right for anyone?”

This is where emotional intelligence comes in. Because the truth is that whether you’re starting a company, or looking for a job, or trying to publish a novel, whenever someone rejects you, you’re very likely playing a version of the old “‘in bed’ at the end of a fortune cookie” game.

Lots of people add negative, unsaid phrases to criticism. (They’re rejecting me because “my idea isn’t good enough,” or “I’ll never be successful,” or “I’m a complete imposter.”)

But emotionally intelligent people learn to turn it around and add a different kind of phrase that might hint at other circumstances.

  • Maybe the reason agents or publishers don’t want your book is that they already have similar competing projects in the works.
  • Maybe the reason you didn’t get the job is that the company thinks someone with your talent and experience will probably get poached away by a competitor.
  • Maybe the reason a potential investor decided to pass is that you’ve been introduced at the wrong stage of the life cycle of their fund, or they just don’t have expertise to judge ideas in your industry.
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Truthfully, you’ll probably never know the unsaid reasons for most rejections, and that gives you a choice: 

  • You can spend a lot of fruitless, frustrating mental energy to try to figure it out.
  • Or, you can choose the more emotionally intelligent route: Train yourself to play a positive version of the “in bed” game, by inventing an all-purpose addition that you can imagine for any type of rejection.

Maybe something like, “We’re rejecting you … because we have our own challenges that have nothing to do with you.”

Granted, compared to “in bed,” “because we have our own challenges that have nothing to do with you” is is nowhere near as pithy or humorous or even nostalgic.

But then again, you could just learn to us “in bed” as a shortcut and a reminder that there’s always something left unsaid: “We’re going to pass on this opportunity but we wish you the best of luck.” (“In bed.”)

Look, I find the whole concept of emotional intelligence fascinating, but I’m most interested in practical, actionable strategies: things like how to choose the right words, how to see things through other people’s eyes, and how to use silence, humor and implicit messaging to communicate effectively.

Because emotional intelligence isn’t about learning to develop empathy and treat people nicely, although those can be nice side-benefits.

Instead, as I write in my free ebook, 9 Smart Habits of People With Very High Emotional Intelligence, it’s about leveraging emotions to make it more likely you’ll achieve your goals.

It’s a good book. If you download it, I think you’ll enjoy it. (“In bed.”) 

Or anywhere else for that matter.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.


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