I don’t actually like to sell. Some people do, surely, but I’m not one of those people.
Or to paraphrase Dorothy Parker’s famous saying, “I hate to write, but I love having written.” For me, that would be, I hate to sell, but I love having sold.
Don’t get me wrong: I respect the art of selling immensely. To me, salespeople are the wheels that keep our economy turning. PR is just the lubricant. But it’s not just salespeople who sells, much like it isn’t just PR people who communicates. We must all communicate — and we must all sell, whether it’s our products, our services, or ourselves. Fresh out of university, I quickly realised that my lack of sales chops was going to be a serious problem.
During this period, I listened to a great many self-help tapes on how to become a better salesman and I watched my fair share of Glengarry Glen Ross. I wanted to be a closer; I love coffee!
But it didn’t work. My first years in the industry was all about selling article ideas to journalists over the phone. I remember locking myself into the bathroom just to breathe for a couple of minutes before going at it again. It didn’t take me long before I realised that this wasn’t going to work. I was almost about to find myself another career.
When I was sitting in the subway on my way home after a day’s work, with nose bleeds and bolting headaches, I fantasised about pursuing another career. I dreamt of becoming a teacher. What could be more meaningful than making sure that other individuals are armed with knowledge to create better results for themselves and the people around them?
Teaching, it seemed, could be my Ikigai:
Ikigai is a Japanese term that translates to “the reason for being” or “why to get up in the morning”. Some say that being a teacher is a calling and I can understand that.
The dream of becoming a teacher was a bit ironic though; I wasn’t exactly the teacher’s pet in school. In fact, I didn’t get along with most of my teachers. I questioned everything, offered unwanted perspectives, and challenged anyone on anything. The truth is that I often felt that I would do their teaching different — and better. But how, then? At the university while I studied public relations, I had a girlfriend who studied to be a teacher in history, politics, and religion. For 4,5 years, I couldn’t stop myself from reading all of her course literature, ranging from Michel Foucault to Jean Piaget.
From all of these books, I especially remembered this quote by Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard:
“If one is truly to succeed in leading a person to a specific place, one must first and foremost take care to find him where he is and begin there.
This is the secret in the entire art of helping.
Anyone who cannot do this is himself under a delusion if he thinks he is able to help someone else. In order truly to help someone else, I must understand more than he — but certainly first and foremost understand what he understands.
If I do not do that, then my greater understanding does not help him at all. If I nevertheless want to assert my greater understanding, then it is because I am vain or proud, then basically instead of benefiting him I really want to be admired by him.
But all true helping begins with a humbling.
The helper must first humble himself under the person he wants to help and thereby understand that to help is not to dominate but to serve, that to help is a not to be the most dominating but the most patient, that to help is a willingness for the time being to put up with being in the wrong and not understanding what the other understands.”
I’ve always loved this idea: This is how I wanted to be taught. This is how I want to teach. And if this is how I teach and also how I lead — maybe this could be a way for me to sell as well? So, instead of thinking, “I’m going to sell this to this person”, I now think, “I’m going to see if I can help this person”. This ikigai of mine made all the difference — and it still does.
It also meant that I at times had to say no to work. But whenever I told potential clients that I couldn’t help them, they were always fine with it. And when they later encountered challenges where my skills would be a better fit, they came back. After all, all you need to start is one very happy client. If you make one client happy, you will get another client. If not from them, then from someone else via recommendation.
If you’re honest about helping people, sales won’t even feel like selling. Unfortunately, there will always be douchebags. This leads to the final piece of the puzzle for those of us who don’t actually like to sell:
Douchebags don’t deserve your help — problem solved.