A First Job In Sales Will Teach You 5 Important Things
I’m not rich. That’s a very relevant piece of information that anyone writing this sort of article needs to put right there, flattering or not.
But I do well, and have for some time, and see ample upside to come.
Of course luck always plays a role.
But more and more, I’m convinced that a major underlying reason for all this was starting in sales, straight out of college.
Not because I’m in sales now (I’m generally not), not because I was great at it then (I wasn’t), but because it inculcated a few things that I’ve drawn on in every professional setting that followed.
So, with the benefit of hindsight, here are five such things.
More importantly, they’re things you can also expect to gain from this line of work.
The significance of eating what you kill
It’s an ironic metaphor from a guy who doesn’t even eat meat, but the point is crystal-clear.
When anything beyond a very modest base salary depends more or less on your work alone, you get ruthlessly efficient at running a quick mental expected-value calculation…and prioritizing accordingly.
“This moves me measurably closer to my goal.” OK, do it.
“This is kinda cool, but I don’t think it will contribute much.” OK, don’t do it.
That’s simple in principle. But actually implementing it from day to day requires a sense of urgency, which often comes from self-dependence and autonomy.
A profound appreciation for predictability
By the same token, when your month’s savings depend on your month’s results, you (or at least I) are filled with gratitude when someone later offers you a consistent, known paycheck.
Can that paycheck become its own set of handcuffs? Can dependability extinguish that drive to do better? Yes, of course. Everything has its disadvantages.
But a little perspective goes a long way.
And on an internet full of “just be an entrepreneur!” advice, it’s easy to lose sight of how nice fixed cash flow is at certain stages in life.
How to speak to what people care about
I never said I was good at selling, but I’m a whole lot better now than on day one.
College had drilled a few things into me that were fine in academia but crippling in the more pragmatic world of B2B sales.
Chief among them: I’d become skilled at sharing complex, erudite research…that didn’t help anybody achieve anything.
Learning to hear, understand, and empathize with a prospect helped me quell that solipsistic research mode in a hurry.
When you’re inviting yourself onto someone else’s calendar (or into their life in general), it’s important to make very clear what’s in it for them. Not because they’re hopeless narcissists, but because they’re busy and you weren’t invited.
It’s that simple.
That one was a cold shower at first, but also a badly needed reality check especially on my way out of school into a much larger, less personal, and more ruthlessly efficient world.
Instant awareness of your social savviness
A whole lot of sales boils down to building productive relationships with strangers. But unlike in your personal life, where you can often pick and choose that other party, in sales it’s almost never up to you.
You’re a bit socially awkward? Not feeling it? Just got someone difficult?
I know all too well how difficult it is to push through any one of those, and sometimes all three at a time.
You don’t need to be a cheesy glad-hander with a phony smile and seemingly coke-fueled energy. You do need to read people and situations quickly, and turn those reads into win-win ideas (often on the spot).
When you’re stretched to the limits of your social skills, you find out extremely quickly where those limits are.
It’s often unpleasant, especially for us introverted and reserved types, but hitting those limits is the one and only way to identify and work with/around them as you make decisions down the road.
The realization that sales is everywhere
I wouldn’t have guessed that sales shows up in virtually every nook and cranny of life.
Is that good? Is that bad? Probably a bit of yes to both. Either way, it’s reality.
After some time in the trenches (can you tell it wasn’t my favorite?) it became undeniably clear that certain skills crossed over to nearly every area of life.
Not to get too theoretical, but perhaps it’s less about sales per se being everywhere than the fact that sales revolves around relational fundamentals and makes them explicit.
And that’s the meta-lesson underneath everything written here.
“So,” you might be thinking, “is he saying I need to go into sales?”
No, that’s not my universal suggestion. If you’re gifted and willing to work hard in another area, then by all means pursue it now and don’t waste a minute doing otherwise.
But it is a worthwhile, valuable, and potentially lucrative move for many of us. That’s especially true if you’re unsure where you’re headed and don’t mind taking a few constructive knocks along the way.
A stint in sales won’t lead you through some mystical transformation — not even close — but it’s an incredibly powerful way to learn critical things about yourself, about others, and about how the two connect.