I Learned This Secret to Developing Resilience at the Hardest Job I’ve Ever Had
If you are struggling with resilience, focus on the smallest step you can take.
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In my basement apartment in Chicago, I squint through red eyes at my brush.
It is clogged with hair.
"Damn. My hair is falling out."
I was 23 years old and six months into a demanding sales job at General Electric, and I was failing hard.
To get this job, I had to convince an executive to pull me off of a leadership program twelve months early.
I wanted to live in Chicago where my friends were and a position opened up. The only problem was that I was about to move to Atlanta for my third rotation. Impatient and ready to move up in my career, I made my play.
I went to the executive responsible for the Chicago territory and made my impassioned case. He had an open position, I was ready now and if he waited until I went to Atlanta, some other executive would get me and all of the great results I would deliver.
He agreed to make a case to pull me off the program and into a direct territory but did so with a warning.
"You will be treated like any other sales rep. If you can't generate business, you will be replaced like anyone else. Are you sure you are ready?"
"Of course. Let's go!"
I wasn't ready.
It was a battle not to piss my pants while he was giving me that warning. I had no idea how to sell, had no customers to start with and only a rudimentary understanding of the technology I was selling.
But, I got what I wanted. I was the new sales rep in Chicago.
Determined to prove my manager smart for giving me the opportunity, I put in ridiculous hours.
I made lists of targets for hours. I wrote out cold call scripts. I practiced my elevator pitch. I read scores of sales books and like a college kid, wrote a book summary on every one.
I prepared all night and then called customers from 8AM to 5PM, just hoping to get someone live. I quickly learned that cold voice messages were a waste of time.
Then I learned that live people weren't much better. I stuttered my way through calls, sounding like the inexperienced kid I was.
The nice ones said no and hung up. The rest chewed me out to make sure I didn't ever call again.
I grew to like the angry people more. At least they weren't patronizing and I actually kept them on the phone longer.
I wasn't sleeping at all. I laid in bed thinking about getting fired. I thought about telling my parents that I got fired from the job they were so proud of me for getting in the first place.
I thought about how I would pay the rent. Even a shitty garden apartment in someone's basement is expensive in Chicago and I wouldn't make it four weeks without a paycheck. I thought about moving back home to live with mom and dad.
Mainly, I just thought about being a failure.
Every week, I jumped on a conference call hosted by my manager. I always went last because I was the rookie.
This meant that I had the pleasure of listening to 20 other sales reps talk about the deals they were chasing. Big deals, exciting deals, strategy. I listened to my manager's voice get louder and more excited when a rep talked about a new opportunity to chase.
I wondered what it would be like to chase a big deal and close it. The call had camaraderie, with reps congratulating each other on big successes. They would give each other advice or mention they would call each other after the call to talk strategy.
What were they talking about? Were there secrets I didn't know?
Then my manager would call out my name.
"Ian, what are you chasing this week?"
I would take my phone off mute and say the same thing every week.
"Uh, hey Bob. Nothing new to report this week."
"OK. Keep hustling buddy."
I would hit mute and imagine what all the other sales reps were saying about me.
Did they feel bad for me because I sucked? Were they gloating that Bob should have hired a more experienced rep? Were the guys in Detroit making bets on how much longer I would last? What were my odds to make it until Christmas?
I responded by working longer hours but I was calling less customers all the time. I was paralyzed by the size of the challenge.
Every week, I thought about calling my boss and giving him my resignation along with an apology for letting him down. He was a great boss and patient, but I never wanted to let him know how I was feeling, especially after how confidently I pitched myself for the job.
This led to my hair starting to fall out in clumps. I was 23 and my hair was falling out because of stress. What the hell?
After one particularly embarrassing conference call where Bob asked me a few probing questions about prospects and got nothing as usual, I was despondent. I got off the phone and thought about how I would get fired. Would he call me or make me fly to his office in St. Louis?
My phone rang. It wasn't my boss.
It was Don, our top sales rep in Kansas City.
I met Don when I was on the training program and spent two days traveling with him to visit customers. Don was 65 years old and one of the most genuine dudes I ever met.
He was polite, thoughtful, soft spoken and completely void of ego. He was the opposite of the stereotype of a typical sales person.
He didn't need to work but just loved the job. As a sales rep, he was money in the bank. He led the company every year and hustled like he was at the bottom. He was worried about me.
"Hey Ian, are you OK?"
I didn't attempt to lie.
"No, Don. I don't think I can do this."
"I look at everything you have going and I am so far away. I can't even get one order and I need hundreds."
"Well, do you think I started with hundreds of orders?"
"It started with one customer saying yes. Actually, it started with hundreds of customers saying no. I wouldn't be here if I had a plan to get to hundreds of customers. My plan was to get one."
"OK. How do I get one?"
"Work backwards. How many calls does it take you to get one appointment? How many appointments for one sale? For me, I need 20 calls to get an appointment and 10 appointments to get one new customer. Maybe you should estimate double. Start making that many calls every day. Think small and it won't be so overwhelming."
"Yes, you are overwhelmed with the size of the challenge but you can't do it all tomorrow. Focus on having one great day. Then focus on having two great days in a row. Stack them and soon enough, you will see results."
I am still grateful for that phone call. It meant everything to me that someone at the top took time to reach out and help.
Kindness knocked me out of my funk and my resilience strengthened. I took his advice seriously.
I focused on having one great day at a time. Five great days turned into two great weeks and my first great month. I started to land more appointments after two months of this approach.
Then, my first customer said yes. I had my first order!
Who did I call first?
My mom, of course.
But, then I called Don. I still remember how proud he was on the other end of that phone. I thanked him for his greatest sale, giving me confidence.
That order led to more confidence and I could tell other prospects about my customer. That social proof and confidence led to more sales and I kept focusing on one good day at a time.
Two years later, I was pushing Don for top sales though he never gave up that title. More importantly, I was sleeping and my hair stopped falling out.
If you are struggling with resilience, focus on the smallest step you can take. Even a small step takes you closer to your goal.
If you want to lose weight, start with one great day. Do you want to quit smoking? Make it through one day. Do you need to pay off debt? Tighten up your spending tomorrow first. If you want to have a great year at work, start with one great day.
If that doesn't work, find a Don. You need someone who has been there, can see if you are on the right path and give you the confidence that the road you are on leads somewhere worth following.
My stress and lack of resilience was never about the work. It was about my misunderstanding that the work would never lead to a result.
There is a safe place in heaven for all of you Don's out there. Be good to each other.
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