My parents worked for the church. Dad left banking and my parents started soup kitchens, writing grants, working with people, and trying to solve problems for those society left behind. We moved. Since I couldn’t stay behind on my own, I went with my parents to a small mill town in Connecticut. I helped do the work of the Lord as best a seven-year old can.
I attended parochial school in the small village. The school had thirty-five people per grade. I was the new girl. One of the ways the school kept the door open was by selling things. Everything. If it wasn’t nailed down, we sold it. We sold wrapping paper. We sold cards. We sold enough candy to bring the down wrath of Jamie Oliver on the entire region and make insulin manufacturers smile. We sold Jesus stamps. We had raffles and events. I’m pretty shocked we didn’t have poker tournaments and shoot craps. God likes poker tournaments and craps. They raise a lot of money. Any money funnelled into the church makes God happy. They say God was particularly upset about the construction of casinos in Eastern Connecticut because they were competition for the church bingo empire.
But my parents were starting soup kitchens, working with those down on their luck. They were working with the types of people who didn’t buy Jesus stamps.
Every fundraiser, I’d bring my fliers and try to sell stuff until an adult worker caught me and told me not to worry about selling magazines. I’d ask Angela, who always walked around in curlers, and Ike, who swallowed strychnine so I couldn’t really understand him but he always talked to me so I liked him a lot. I’d ask the lady for whom I wrote letters. Her brother was in prison and she couldn’t write. Turned out she didn’t have a brother. There went a sale. Nobody ever said yes. Not the street people, the mentally ill, the single mother, or the veterans coming into the soup kitchen for simple meal. They didn’t buy Jesus stamps or magazines.
I couldn’t sell anything. Not a magazine, not a chocolate bar, not a sticker with the face of the Lord. Who wouldn’t want the Lord to stick to things? I didn’t understand.
I got in trouble at school.
It seemed everyone did their part to sell for the Lord. Everyone but me. I sold nothing. Every day, the results of the fundraiser would be announced. Jessica always sold the most. Jessica’s parents worked for offices where annoyed colleagues were morally compelled to buy stuff from each others’ kids so they didn’t look cheap. Soup kitchen clients had bigger fish to fry–or maybe they didn’t. It’s why they came to the kitchen.
The nuns told me to try harder. I tried harder. The Lord, you know, helps people selling for Jesus if they just have faith. But he never helped me. I lacked faith. I got “the look” and I didn’t get any prizes. I didn’t even get the little pom-pom creature with the googly eyes and sticker feet that everyone who sold one thing got. I was the only one who didn’t have a googly-eyed pom-pom. I cried.
Finally, Mom went in and talked to the principal. I never got in trouble again. I got a googly-eyed pom-pom for trying. But I knew, in my heart, I didn’t do my part to help The Lord. In fact, I probably swung the doors to his school shut just a little bit quicker or worse yet, I opened it a crack for the Devil, who could easily influence those who didn’t have Jesus stamps.
From those days forward, I knew I could not sell. I couldn’t market or endure fundraisers. The band sausage and cheese fundraisers in high school stabbed my soul like a knife. I shook with fear. In the early days of our business, marketing campaigns gave me anxiety attacks. The mere mention of handing out fliers or putting them on cars brought panic, cold sweats, and the fight or flight response. I fought with my husband over this. I shook when cold calling people at my first job. Even though I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt there was no person on the other end of the phone about to reject my Jesus stamps, the negative image of sales and entrepreneurship had been imprinted on my soul.
The truth is, we are all salesmen. Dan Pink proves this in his book “To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others.” He proves that we spend most of our time in this new digital economy convincing, marketing, and selling ourselves and our products. Talking to people. Building relationships. Showing our awesomeness. Sharing products and things we love. That I could always do. Unless you labeled it “sales.” Sales gets a bad rap. Because of this, we often sell ourselves short as salespeople.
The world is changing. One of my biggest missions as an educator is to teach my students to choose and market themselves, because all the performance in the world does nothing for them if the world doesn’t see them shine. Thankfully, I won’t have to teach them to sell Jesus stamps or sausage and cheese, but to sell themselves. That is their own most precious commodity–and the gift they bring to the universe.
[images: en.wikipedia.org: “The Salesman,” darthphilatelist.blogspot.com, and marblesthebrainstore.com]