Shadows for Bars

I earn a living in sales. I’ve been selling in some form or fashion most all of my life. I was a scrawny kid growing up, 5 foot nothin’ and a hundred pounds in high school. Ears like Dumbo. Literally the smallest kid in school in ninth grade. So I had to learn to sell myself.

“… my prison was just an open cage,
there were no keys, no guards,
just one frightened man and some old shadows for bars.”
–  Bruce Springsteen – Living Proof

I earn a living in sales. I’ve been selling in some form or fashion most all of my life. I was a scrawny kid growing up, 5 foot nothin’ and a hundred pounds in high school. Ears like Dumbo. Literally the smallest kid in school in ninth grade. So I had to learn to sell myself. Humor was my method of choice. In college there was this girl I wanted to go out with. She was one of the prettier girls in school and didn’t hurt for dates. I’d ask her out and she’d say no. So I’d wait a week or two and ask her out again. No. Every time I saw her on campus I’d stop and talk to her. I’d drop by the clothing store where she worked. “Wanna go out sometime?” No. This was somewhere around 1984. They hadn’t yet criminalized stalking. So this went on for months.

One afternoon I had gotten out of class and noticed her car parked outside the BA building. She drove a late ‘70’s Thunderbird. The hood was about three football fields long. It was a warm spring day, and knowing she’d eventually have to return to her vehicle I did what, to me, seemed like the natural thing to do … I stretched out on the hood and began to read a book. To this day I can remember the look on her face when she saw me lying there on the hood of her car. I’d best describe it as a mixture of disgust, amusement and resignation. We went out that night. And so began a relationship that lasted several years. With a sell.

Professionally, I made the move into sales about a year and half ago. I’m a CPA by training, but I’d drifted in and out of accounting over the years. This time I decided to leave for good. With no customers, or even prospects for that matter, I did what any good salesman does: I started knocking on doors and meeting people. In sales, you get a lot of “no’s” and a handful of “yes’s.” Between my love life and the better part of a decade spent as a stockbroker, I’d learned to process rejection quite handily. That’s probably the number one qualification of a good salesman … the ability to take “no” in stride. Success came quickly for me, and within six months I had closed the largest sale in our company’s history.

Our company manufactures point of purchase displays that help consumer goods companies sell their products inside retailer’s stores, primarily Walmart stores. This particular project was highly creative and had an extremely tight deadline. It was, in fact, the first of its kind that we’d done and involved me and our creative director, a quirky Englishman named Andrew, fitting together many pieces of an unfamiliar puzzle. The culture in our company is extremely customer focused at all levels: sales, customer service, design and manufacturing, and folks throughout our organization worked tirelessly during this 3 month period to make the project a success. It was probably the most intense 3 months I’ve personally experienced in 20+ years in the business world. Overall, the project was a success, but as a result of some issues outside our control, some deadlines were missed. In the world of Walmart, deadlines are everything. There are no excuses.

As a result, at the end of the project I was left with a feeling that I hadn’t served the customer well. We had done the next to impossible, but we hadn’t done it flawlessly. My customer was understanding, they knew the magnitude of what we’d accomplished, but there was still a price to be paid with their customer, Walmart, the mini-nation. Over the course of the next year I worked on a couple of smaller projects with the customer, but was hesitant to pursue their business in a meaningful way. Hesitant because I felt like I hadn’t delivered what they’d asked for on our initial project. So I became an order taker instead of a salesman. I became passive.

But then a funny thing happened … they asked me to repeat the program for the upcoming year. After months of fretting, I found out their perception was completely different than mine. The limitations I’d set on penetrating the account were strictly of my own making. They existed solely in my mind and nowhere else.

This one incident taught me a huge lesson in business and in life. Probably a lesson I already knew in my head, but just hadn’t taken to heart. My perception isn’t always reality. I began to see that self-limiting thoughts have floated around in my head and cost me success in pretty much every area of my life for as long as I can remember. I began to see that all too often I’d locked myself in a prison inside my mind, convinced I couldn’t move beyond the bars, the imaginary boundaries I’d laid out for myself. So now I’ve begun to more closely examine my negative thoughts. In business and in life. At home, I’m mindful of helping my children do the same … looking at the basis for why we believe what we believe. It’s been nothing short of amazing to see how quickly “can’ts” become “cans.” Capturing individual thoughts and beliefs and examining their basis has shown me a world of possibilities I never dreamed existed … unlocking the prison gates that I held the key to all along.

Image by: Sascha, Flickr

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