Embarrassing myself in front of LinkedIn's CEO cost me millions of dollars, but it was the best mistake I ever made

Jia jiangJia JiangJia Jiang lived through a nightmare, and it cost him millions of dollars.

Jia Jiang is an entrepreneur and the CEO of Wuju Learning. This post is republished on Business Insider with permission.

What happens when you are a regular employee at a big company and you randomly run into the CEO, who asks you what you have been working on?

It would be great if you are cool as a cucumber and give an amazing elevator pitch, making the case that the work you’ve been doing is crucial to the company’s success. The boss is so impressed that he invites you to a private coffee meeting to hear more of your insights. Wouldn’t that be a dream come true? But what happens when you are so flustered that you peed your pants instead? Would that be a nightmare or what?

I lived through that nightmare, and it cost me millions of dollars. It wasn’t because I bombed my answer, but because how much I let it affect my confidence afterward. I will share what I learned with you so you won’t get crushed by your own failure.

In the summer of 2008, I was in between my two years of MBA at Duke, doing a summer marketing internship for LinkedIn. At the time, LinkedIn was a young company, but showing tremendous promise. Just a couple weeks after my arrival, the company was valued at $US1 billion (it went IPO in 2011 and is now valued at $US25 billion). I was employee #180 (they have over 8,700 employees now). Most of my colleagues who joined around my time are now multi-millionaires based on the appreciation of their stock.

I, on the other hand, was only a summer intern with no stock options. I would need to perform well to turn my gig into a full-time job and then collect the millions. But I didn’t care about money. I LOVED LinkedIn (I still do today), LOVED my job, and LOVED Silicon Valley. At the time, I was the only person in the company doing market research and development for the Chinese market. Given how big that market has become today, my job was crucial to the company’s future.

Then, one day as I was working extra late trying to impress everyone around me, I ventured into the company kitchen to grab a drink. In came Dan Nye, the CEO of LinkedIn at the time. He saw me and gave me a smile, asking what I was working on. I had no prepared answer. My heart was pounding, the hair at the back of my neck was standing up, and I started stuttering. Trying to be cool but passionate, smiling but serious, humble but important all at the same, I behaved like a fresh graduate in film auditioning for the next James Bond role. I incoherently fumbled through words such as “market size,” “statistical significance,” and “cluster analysis,” hoping the combination of these words would somehow make sense to him. One minute later, I still had no idea what I was talking about. Dan gave me a polite smile, said “OK, good luck,” and left.

I wanted to hit my head against the wall… maybe I did, but I can’t remember now. That CEO encounter marked the turning point of my promising summer internship. I lost tons of confidence about myself and my work, and I never fully recovered. I started to behave more timidly and was afraid to take any risks.

My performance dropped like a rock. As the result, the full-time job offer never came when I was an intern. No full-time job, and no stocks.

It literally cost me millions.

Many nights after that day, I silently sang Eminem’s Lose Yourself — “If you had one shot, one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted. In one moment would you capture it or just let is slip?”

I didn’t just let it slip. I let the moment bury me.

Now looking back at this episode with all the knowledge I have now, what should I have done before and after my elevator pitch?

1. Prepare

Whether you are working as an intern, an executive or even an entrepreneur, you have to prepare an elevator pitch of what you are doing and why it is meaningful. It’s not just about showing your value to the CEO, your manager or colleagues, but also understand your own value. Trying to wing it is a disaster waiting to happen.

2. Practice

No one shows up and charms like Bill Clinton, unless of course, you are Bill Clinton. But even Clinton spent hours and hours preparing for his debates, speeches, and meetings. And some of the best business communicators such as Steve Jobs and Marc Benioff were notorious for tirelessly rehearsing what they say. The best way to be confident about what you do is to have done it successfully in practice.

3. Turn rejection/failure into opportunities

You do the above to minimise the chance that you will fail. But when you do, and you will, you can use it as an opportunity. If I were to bomb my pitch today, I would try to schedule a meeting with Dan, or “run into” him again, and tell him I didn’t explain my role well last time around. I would tell him what I do is to prepare LinkedIn for its entry into the biggest Internet market in the world. I would prepare data, insights, stories, or anything that’s better than what I said in that encounter.

What I did seven years ago was the worst thing a rejected person could have possibly done — walking away in shame and letting the rejection define myself. But, my story had a happy ending. I ended up studying the topic of rejection more than anyone in the world, because I know the fear of rejection too well from my personal experiences. When people are afraid, they lose confidence, perform at an extremely low level, have a hard time recovering, and sometimes vomit mum’s spaghetti. But, on the other hand, when they are not afraid, they are calm, commanding, inquisitive and perform at their highest level.

I eventually became an entrepreneur, a vlogger with millions of YouTube views, a bestselling author and public speaker on the subject of “rejection”, and a business bravery trainer who trains sales people to become rejection-proof at some of the best companies and universities in the world.

I will be giving a keynote in next month’s LinkedIn Talent Connect Conference, along with Jeff Weiner, the current CEO of LinkedIn. And when I changed my LinkedIn profile yesterday for my new company, the first person who congratulated me was none other than Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn and the Oracle of Silicon Valley.

When I run into them again next month, I will know what to say this time.

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