Rejection and the DNA of Sales People

The other day I was listening to a RadioLab podcast called Cut and Run. It was a RadioLab short. I love RadioLab. You can listen the the podcast here. This particular show tried to answer the question why Kenyan long distance runners are so much better than everyone else? I’ve always known that Kenyan’s are really good at long distance, but what I didn’t know is that it’s not all Kenyan’s. It’s Kenyan’s from one particular region of western Kenya and even more specific, it’s one particular tribe from this region called the Kalenjin.

The Kalenjin make up .06% of the worlds population. However, from this one tribe comes more accomplished long-distance runners than anywhere else in the world.

For example:

There have only been 5 American high school runners who have broken 4 minute mile. However, there’s one H.S. in Kenyan that had 4 sub 4 milers all at the same time.

There have only been 17 American men in history who have run a marathon in less than 2 hours and 10 seconds.  In October of 2011 there were 32 Kalenjin who did it under 2:10.

These numbers are absolutely crazy. The Kalenjin’s success is far above and beyond the rest of the world and it’s baffling. Scientists, sports scientists etc. have been trying to figure out why for years. How can such a small population of people create such dominant athletes in a single sport? What is different about them or their environment?

There are many theories. The podcast looks at many of them, and like most things it suggests it’s more then one unique element. It’s the combination of many things. One of these elements however, really got my attention. The theory is that one of the reasons the Kalenjin are such great runners is because of their ability to withstand intense amounts of pain.

The Kalenjin, for the most part, still participate in teenage circumcision. They still practice a ritual where teenagers go through a sort of hell week (two weeks actually) where they are cut, beaten, and subjected to intense pain in order to prepare them for their circumcision. According to the podcast, when young men are circumcised their faces are covered with mud that is left to dry. The dry mud cracks with any facial contortions, alerting the tribe to the fact the the young man is in pain and therefore a coward for not being able to withstand it. Yes, you read that correctly. The journey to manhood for the Kalenjin is the ability to be circumcised with a sharp stick and endure the pain by not showing ANY emotion or reaction. Those that do react to the pain, (crack the mud) are considered weak cowards, relegated to the lowest class of the tribe.

Here is the hypothesis. In addition to being genetically predisposed to running long distances, it is argued the Kalenjin are also predisposed to the pain tolerance, through cultural practices, required to overcome the pain that accompanies long distance running. It is a know fact that part of excelling at endurance sports is the ability to withstand the pain and discomfort associate with pushing your body for such a long period of time. The argument is that this ritual around circumcision and pain tolerance has Kalenjin better prepared to manage the pain associated with endurance running.

What does this all have to do with sales?

This story got me wondering. Is there something like the ability to withstand pain in successful runners that exists in sales? I think there is. It’s the ability to withstand and tolerate rejection.

I have no real data, but I believe those sales people who are impervious to the emotional toll of rejection and the discomfort that comes from being told no are for more successful than those who aren’t.

I’m curious what this community thinks. Do you think sales people who are better at tolerating rejection are better sales people? Do you think handling rejection is in their DNA? Or, do you think there is another skill set that the best of the best in sales have the rest of us don’t?

I’d love to hear what this community thinks.