Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Selling Yourself for Fun and Profit

After I graduated university, I didn't have much luck getting a career-track job. I got temp agency gigs and one decent short-term contract, and I got some interviews, but nothing real and permanent that I could build a life on. So I went for some career counselling to try to help with this. At one point in my meeting, the lady there was telling me about the importance of sending thank-you letters, and told a story from her own job hunt a decade before. Apparently she'd interviewed with a manager who had a really complex name and she asked the receptionist how to spell it on her way out. The conversation went something like this:

Her: "Do you know how impressive it is when you send a thank-you note to [complicated name] and it's spelled properly?"

Me: "Wow, how do you remember that name from an interview 10 years ago?"

Her: "I worked with her for five years."

This stunned me. You see, I didn't actually realize that interviews could lead to jobs. I knew it intellectually, of course, but the idea of going into an interview, competing with other applicants, and coming out with the job was just totally alien to me. I kept trying because that was what you were supposed to do, and because it made me feel less terrible for not having a career, not because I expected it to actually work.

And, sad to say, my career path seems to have fit that description. I've gotten jobs, of course, but they were all either jobs where I had an in with the manager, or jobs where they'd take just about anyone with a pulse - neither call centres nor 100% commission sales jobs are known for their discriminating HR practices. They're much more likely to take everyone who seems willing and generally competent, and then let the wheat and the chaff separate themselves out. It's a reasonable enough practice, and I don't condemn them for it, but it means that getting one of those jobs doesn't feel like much of an accomplishment. In my life I've had dozens of interviews for competitive jobs, but I've never actually landed one.

Until yesterday.

I'm going to be starting a new job in a few weeks. Basically, I'll be making financial plans for a living, but without the sales and customer service parts of the job that I had at my last position. Given that the planning was the part where I was best, this is a good change for me, and going to a nice predictable salary makes me happy as well. This is pretty much my dream job for this point in my career, and I fit it perfectly, so on some level I wasn't surprised.

But on another level...holy crap, I have a job. A real job, one with benefits and a Christmas bonus and RRSP matching and everything.I had to go up against other people for it, and I beat them. This is trippy. It's not that I didn't think I was good enough - I've always known I'd be great at most of the jobs I've ever interviewed for - but I've never had much luck convincing others of that fact. And still, I kept applying, even when part of me felt like it was never going to work out, because...well, what else am I going to do? Give up and live on welfare for the rest of my days? I had to try. My intellect was telling me I had a real chance, even if it had never worked out in past, and my emotions knew that if I ever wanted to have a family and a future, I had to keep plugging away.

Still, despite all that pressure, there were times I wanted to stop, to run away from having to parse all the walls of eye-glazing HR-speak. But if I'd done that, I'd never have gotten a job. Sales is an emotional roller-coaster, and even though it's really good when you're on top of it, the lows can get very low. The trick is to get through them, because you'll never avoid them.

It may strike some as odd that I'm talking about sales here, because the whole purpose of this process for me was to get away from sales. But even if I'm not in "a sales job", I still needed to convince someone to give me large sums of money in exchange for services. It's a longer-term arrangement, but at its root it's still about convincing someone that you can help them. That's sales.

If you look at it the right way, a lot of things in life are sales. Getting into a romantic relationship? You're trying to convince someone else that you're a good partner. You're selling them on the idea of you. Trying to change someone's mind on a political issue? You're selling them a vision. Trying to get a pay raise is selling your employer on your value.

We instinctively treat salesman as somehow dirty, and "What are you trying to sell?" is as much condemnation as question. But we all sell ourselves, and we all should. The world is large and anonymous, this isn't some pre-industrial village where we all know each other. Standing out from the crowd takes work, but it's important. And even when it sucks, you need to keep going. We aren't hermits who can do everything by ourselves - we need to get help from others. Sales is about convincing someone else that you can both help each other. Sometimes that's easy - physical goods and money are both ways of helping someone that don't take a lot of explanation.

Problem is, if you want to make a fantastically complex society such as ours, it can't always be that easy. If you want to be a hermit in the woods, that's no big deal. But if you want to be part of that marvellous complexity, you need to be fully a part of it. That means helping others, and that means getting others to help you. This is why I talked before of the fact that I needed to keep going - I want cars and computers and medicine and music, and in order to get it I have to sell myself to others. Giving up means opting out of all that wonderful modernity, and that's not something I'd be willing to accept.

I don't want anyone else to accept it either. You're better than that - we're all better than that. Nobody should be a failure at life. Keep plugging away. Even if it sucks, even if it feels like it's not getting you anywhere, keep trying. A lot of the things that got me here were years in the making - I started my CFA in 2010, based on nothing but a faint hope and a feeling that I had to at least try to make myself look good. Seven years later, it may have been the difference between this job going to me and someone else, but it did nothing for me except raise a few eyebrows before now. Seven years of plugging away got me here. If you haven't been trying at least as long, you should probably keep at it. Failure happens, and failure sucks, but failure isn't the end of the story.

A lot of people actually would be willing to accept opting out of modernity because of the difficulty of selling themselves, though. I'm honest enough with myself to admit that a big part of why opting out isn't acceptable to me is external pressure. I could probably live with an internet connection and no future. I wouldn't be happy with the situation, but I'd survive. Thing is, the people around me would never let me get away with it. Thank god for them.

Not everyone has that support network, though. Not everyone has friends and family who'll see you run at a brick wall, fall over with a bloody nose, and tell you to get up and take another try at it because one of those days the wall will be the one that falls over. Some can get themselves up and take the hundredth run at the wall with no support, and those people tend to be disproportionately likely to be the successful ones in life, but most of us are not so determined as that. We'd much rather sit down, grab an ice pack, and psych ourselves up for it. You know, just for a little while, until the bleeding stops. We'll take another run any minute now. Really.

If you're in a culture that accepts failure, nobody will be pointing you at the wall. If you're in a culture that doesn't, everyone will be telling you to get up and try again. That's a remarkably important difference. A culture that demands you never stop until you succeed is one where most people succeed, and a culture that lets you fail with impunity is one where most people fail. I was lucky enough to grow up in a culture that wouldn't let me get away with failing too badly, because if I hadn't, I suspect I wouldn't have ever gotten to the point of having this job.

The funny thing is, I'm not normally a quitter - put me in a crap job and I'll do it until my fingers bleed. But I'm no good with brick walls, because I've always broken before they did. I know in my head that they break eventually, but I'd never really gotten through one before yesterday. Much as I'd tell everyone not to give up on themselves, I think it's also important not to give up on others. If someone tries for something and fails, you can listen to them complain and buy them a consolation beer, but you should be pointing them at the nearest brick wall too. You can do better, and so can they. I've leaned on those around me sometimes, and I suspect everyone reading this has done it once or twice too. Make sure you're someone who can offer that help to people who need it, even if they don't really want to hear it. It's not a pleasant task, on either side, but it's a necessary one. Your friends and family need to sell themselves too, and sometimes it's your job to help them remember that it's necessary. Even if they don't think it's possible, it's still necessary to try - that way, the worst that can happen is that you fail knowing you tried. And who knows, maybe that damn wall will fall down eventually. If it happened for me, it can happen for anyone.

God help me, I'm turning into a motivational speaker. I should probably stop now.

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