“I know what you mean, in fact the Kinnebrews down the street were saying the same thing. But once they took a look at all the Volume Library had to offer in one book and weighed that against how important education is to them for their children, they told me they couldn’t afford not to get it. I would love to show you a few of the things that changed their minds. Do you have a place where we can sit down?”
“Sure, come on in.”
AN ANSWER TO AN OBJECTION. This is the term for one of the many memorized responses I learned to sell books door to door, along with dozens of other college students who made the same trip to Knoxville, Tenn., in the summer of ’82. It was the summer before my final year in school. It was also the summer when I decided to never work for a living.
There were many things I wanted to be and do when I was a kid. They included astronaut, athlete, scientist, magician, clergyman, comedian, teacher, psychologist, and actor. It was normal for me to spend my free time working out a math puzzle, a basketball move, and a magic trick in the same afternoon. But whenever I thought seriously about what I wanted to do for a living, my mind always divided my future into two possible roads: the practical and the dream.
As a product of a broken family and as a result of having spent my formative years with five siblings and a single mom at the edges of poverty, it felt irresponsible of me to not think practically. As much as I was tempted to try a life in show biz, my ears were always filled with, “get your education, get a good job, play by the rules.” The thought of following my dreams and becoming a comedian filled this Catholic school-raised kid with legacy guilt. I remember one clarifying moment I had as a teen when my brother and I looked up at our ceiling one day and saw a hole looking back at us and realizing that our roof had literally caved in. We looked at each other and vowed this would never happen to us in our adult life. The question I formed early on in my life was not where I was going to end up but how.
By the summer of ’82, I was in my third year in college (a theatre major), feeling directionless and not confident at all. I felt like I was possibly throwing away an important time in my life chasing a foolish dream and not listening to the well- meaning people around me who continually reminded me to have something “I can fall back on.” My response to that had always been that I didn’t view my life as a series of “fall backs” but as series of “leap forwards.” And even though I always delivered that line with a confident smile and smirk, lurking underneath was terror and unease. One day, before the end of the school year, I was wandering aimlessly through the halls when I came upon an ad that promised thousands of dollars to students who were willing to spend their summer selling books door to door in another part of the country. I was in desperate need of money and an escape and thought I might be able to make enough to even buy a car. Like the Southwest Airlines ad that says “Wanna get away?”, I did and signed up.
“I feel healthy, I feel happy, I feel terrific!” This was the battle cry we were taught to say every morning before we went out to sell books. It was one of the many “scripted” ploys we were given as budding young salespeople about to be unleashed unto the world. Students from all over the country were gathered together for a week in Knoxville to learn all the tricks and patter you need to convince Mr. and Mrs. Johnson’s checkbook to buy some books from you even though their faces kept telling you no. It was an exhilarating time. Every morning we would gather together in a hotel conference room to hear inspirational speeches, pep talks, survival strategies, and play out possible scenarios. At the end of the week, we were told which part of the country we would be selling books. I was going to Rhode Island and couldn’t wait. As a theatre major, it was easy for me to memorize all the stiff greetings and answers to objections we were given. If Mr. and Mrs. Johnson thought they were going to resist my memorized charms, they were mistaken. I was going to crush this. I felt healthy, I felt happy, I felt terrific!
I felt horrible. I was terrible at selling books. Nothing I did seem to work very well. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson did not care about my answers to their objections. They said no and meant it. Within a week, I was devastated. My goal was to try and sell six books a day but three at the absolute minimum. I’m not sure if I sold two books for the entire week! After a month, it was not much better. All of my hopes and dreams of making enough money to buy a car were slipping away faster than common sense at a Drumpf rally. No matter how much I “healthy, happy, terrificked” my mornings, by the afternoons I felt ready to give up. One day, while riding my bike through an intersection in Fall River, I was sideswiped by a car and was sent flying to the sidewalk. I sat stunned for a few minutes, not quite believing what had just happened. Amazingly, I wasn’t hurt.
I told the distraught driver I was okay and slowly climbed back on my bike feeling dazed and disoriented. Within minutes I was crying uncontrollably. What was I doing here? I hated selling books. I hated Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. I wanted to go home!
For some reason, I talked myself into staying. I think it was a combination of hearing the sympathetic, supportive, but somewhat disappointed tone in my mom’s voice as I told her my plans in between my sobs. And the cold realization that I was about to quit and give up.
Something my ultra- competitive athletic side would never have dreamed of doing. I had never given up on anything in my life. So I sucked it up and literally climbed back onto my bike and kept going. It’s funny, but there’s something about honestly admitting defeat that kind of frees you up. I still hated selling books, but I no longer let that stop me from knocking on doors.
The rest of the summer was a somewhat surreal combination of experiencing the frustration of not being very good at sales, the exhilaration of the freedom of accepting that but enjoying my time anyway, and the fascination of spending time with strangers in their own living rooms. I met so many incredible people that summer in various degrees of struggle and success. And focusing on them really helped me take the attention off of myself and any pity that tried to creep into my bones. There was one family in particular who had such a profound effect on me, that I still think about them from time to time.
It was towards the end of the summer and I was in a particularly poor section of Fall River, Mass. There were many first-generation Portuguese families in this area, many of whom did not speak much English and I was struggling to get people to even listen to my entire pitch. About to pack it in one day, I instead climbed up some stairs to one last door. I said my pitch and to my surprise the gentle-seeming man let me in and led me to his living room. I was so excited, I hadn’t been in a living room all day, and I tore into my pitch. As I was talking, he was joined by his wife and their three small children. I really hammed it up for the kids who literally grabbed the colorful children’s books that were part of the collection right from my hands!
Sensing victory and happy that I might end my day on a great sale, I went right into the close. Although the father’s English was spare, as soon as I mentioned the price I could see his face completely understood the price. In a poignant silent moment, I looked into his disappointed eyes and immediately knew that he really couldn’t afford these books. I dispensed with any rote answers to objections, not wanting to damage his pride, thanked him politely and got up to leave. As I was walking to the door, I noticed there was not one book in the house. I was really struck by this sight and the air of excitement that had filled the room moments before now took on a different meaning. I tried giving the dad my samples (we took orders and delivered the books at the end of the summer) but his pride wouldn’t allow it and I left. I cried all the way home.
I spent a lot of time in many homes that summer and the overwhelming recurring theme I noticed was how many people seemed unhappy with their lives. Maybe it was their choice of job, choice of spouse, or just a general unease about the future, but it was unmistakable. I vowed to myself that I would choose happiness and fulfillment above all else in my life’s direction. I knew it didn’t matter how much money I made, how much status I had, or what kind of things I could accumulate. I had to pour myself into doing something meaningful or there was no point. I decided to choose a path for myself and whatever I did for a living was the physical manifestation of walking down that path. I remember saying to myself, “I’m never going to work again. I’m only going to walk.”
My last few days of the summer were spent delivering the book orders to the families whose objections were somehow melted by my answers. There weren’t a lot of deliveries and I didn’t make enough money to buy that car I wanted, but I felt good. On the last day, I carried one extra set of books I had ordered up a set of stairs and laid them down quietly on the welcome mat at the front door. Luckily no one was home and I stealthily tip-toed down the stairs and got out of there hoping I wouldn’t run into anybody. As I rode away on my bike. I couldn’t stop smiling imagining how excited those three kids were going to be when they got home.
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