When I was 23, I was laid off from my first real job, at a financial law firm in New York City. The firm was involved in real-estate deals; it collapsed 6 months before Lehman Brothers.
I didn’t know what to do next, but I knew I would never do that again. It was terrible work. I saw a swath of white-collar existence where all these people, well-educated and well-paid people, were simply a means of production. I saw no passion, craftsmanship, or creation in these jobs, just some guaranteed cash and presumed stability – “presumed” because, as my lay-off taught me, it meant giving up control of your destiny.
I took my lesson to California, and I took a risk on a digital marketing technology start-up as a founding employee. We had no rules and no bosses, just a team of smart, motivated people figuring things out as we went along. We were in control. And we were going to win. Our idea was just that good.
A few months in, the reality struck me right in the face — no one cared.
It hadn’t occurred to me that controlling your destiny has a cost. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the thing we built wouldn’t just move itself, that it isn’t enough to just believe you have an answer. You have to convince others. What hadn’t occurred to me was that I needed to sell.
I learned how to craft a story, and answer to ‘why?’ I learned how to understand a market and position a solution. Over three years, we built the company to 50 people, engineers and marketers and operations people, with the motto “everyone’s in sales.” Most importantly, I learned that, for all the tactics, sales is really only about empathy and human understanding. And here, my learning has never stopped.
I’m telling this story because I’ve been interviewing people lately, mostly straight out of college. Many express an aversion to selling. The term brings to mind a weary door-to-door salesman, or a cheesy used-car guy. Many prefer titles like “Analyst,” or “Editor,” or “Social Media Manager,” or “Master of Something, expected 2014.” I get it. These are all solid options. You produce something and get paid for it. But it’s still someone else’s thing. If you want full control of your career, if you want the power and joy of doing only what you want, you have to know how to sell. Nothing goes anywhere without sellers.
The world’s greatest salespeople we don’t think of as “sellers” at all. They are just themselves, doing what they believe. They inspire us to follow. Steve Jobs moved us to see a more elegant future. Michael Jordan is responsible for more shoe sales than anyone on the planet. We call these sellers “leaders.” They understand us and give us what we want and need. They codify values we aspire to, and they convince us to believe.
There is a massive difference between Oprah Winfrey or President Obama and a junior seller that goes beyond ability. That difference is something like “true belief.” Our great leaders are doing something they love, something that is deeply a part of them, something that matters. It doesn’t look like “selling” to us, and it probably doesn’t feel like selling to them. Yet the goal is the same. They get people to buy in.
So to anyone who wants a better job, or has big dreams, I say: learn how to sell. You may not have found what you believe in yet; you can still develop the skills you will need when you do. Selling is really hard. But from it, you learn to better understand your fellow human beings. You learn to solve difficult problems. And you learn to control your own destiny.