Authoritarianism, Bad Ideas, Business, Cultural Traits, Culture, Human Nature, Myth, Sales, Work

Power, Persuasion, and Leadership

(About a 9 minute read)

In high school, I won the popularity contest for next year’s student council president by an overwhelming landslide.  There were only two dissenting votes out of about 500 cast.  The dissenters were my opponent and her best friend.

That summer, I completely rewrote the council’s constitution in order to make both the council and the office of president more influential. I won’t use the word “power” here, because that would be misleading.  Neither the council nor its president had anything approaching real power.

Continue reading “Power, Persuasion, and Leadership”

Business, Competence, Honesty, Miscellaneous, Sales, Work

One Thing Most Extraordinary Salespeople Have in Common (Part II)

Please Note: This is the second and last part of a two part series on the art of person-to-person persuasion — or selling, as the cads call it.  I strongly recommend you read the first part first before reading this part, because the first part is funnier, much funnier. It can be found here.

 

(About a 4 minute read)

As you’ll recall, Chuck was not merely a successful salesperson, but almost in a category of his own.  He had, for instance, set a hundred year sales record for his corporation. Then, the very next year, he broke his own record — just like a turnip joyously smashed against a concrete sidewalk by a man passionate to live his life fully.  And again the following year!  But this time, as easily as a watermelon jack-hammered to the merest juicy pulp — and by a man extremely prejudicial against that particular melon, and no other melon.

Three years running, before Chuck retired from the company to start his own business.

Chuck was also my mentor, and the approach to selling that I am going to discuss in this post is faithful to the one he taught me over the course of a year.

So far as my own experience has confirmed, Chuck’s approach is so effective, so powerful, that just about anyone who is willing and able to practice hard enough to learn and apply it will — at a bare minimum — greatly improve their success.

But here’s a catch: The approach looks deceptively simple, and I also fear many folks will take a superficial look at it only to conclude they have “heard it all before”.  I would encourage them not to.  The approach worked for Chuck, and it even worked for me — who had much less aptitude for sales than Chuck.

So,  I do not ask that you decide to try it, I only ask that you thoroughly and thoughtfully study it before deciding what to do with it.

The next thing I have to say might surprise anyone who harbors a stereotypical view of salespeople as essentially dishonest.  Honesty was once a major issue for me in my early years as a salesperson.  Almost more than anything else, I found myself at war with my own sense of honesty and fair play.

It seemed to me that persuading people to buy something almost required a fair bit of BSing them.  I wasn’t at all comfortable with that.  I was even less comfortable with aggressively pushing or tricking people into buying.  If that sounds extraordinary, consider where my feelings came from.

I was raised in a small town where doing such things could quickly gain you a reputation — a reputation that in turn would make you all but a pariah.  Only a psychopath can end up a habitually pushy liar growing up in that environment.

The last thing I expected from a professional sales trainer was a solution to those problems.   But that’s what Chuck did: Showed me an approach to sales so deceptively simple, yet so powerful, you neither had to lie to your customers, nor push them into buying.  Instead, once you learned how to actually apply it, the customers would push themselves into buying.

So, you might ask, “What is this fabulous secret approach? Fork it over, Sunstone, you insufferable assassin of melons!”

I will right after this important message from our sponsor (that would be me again, I’m the sponsor here):  The approach is not secret. Far from it, it has been around for ages and is well known.

But…

I’ve never seen it properly taught.  Not by trainers, not by books.  Only in that singular sense is it a real secret.  Least of all have I seen it properly emphasized.  Now, that being said, here we go:

Perhaps you’ve heard of FAB.  If you haven’t, FAB stands for Feature-Advantage-Benefit, and most salespeople have at least heard of it.  But many (I often suspect most) do not consistently apply it or — if they do — they do not apply it in the most powerful manner possible, which chiefly consists in perfectly tailoring it to each individual customer.  So let’s turn to that now.

First, a simple way to grasp FAB — at least at first — is to imagine that every sale proceeds from the salesperson telling you the features of his or her product, to their telling you how those features will be of an advantage to you, to their wrapping up by telling you how you will specifically benefit from their advantages.

To illustrate, suppose you wanted to sell a drill bit to a man who came into your hardware store telling you he was shopping around all the stores that day for the best price on a quarter inch bit.

Would you tell him a price right off the bat?  If you would, you’re like the vast majority of salespeople. And what happens when he comes back at you with, “That’s not low enough.  Jones and Dogs is selling the same bit for a buck less. Can you beat that?”

Most salespeople who can will immediately cave to the lower price.  But suppose you applied FAB.  Your first step would be — not to tell him your price — but to ask him what he wanted the bit for.  And unless you do that just right, it can sound pretty weird to him that you want to know.

But suppose you get past that hurdle and he tells you he wants to hang some shelves in his apartment.  So you ask him “What for?”  Well, it turns out his fiancé will only marry and then move in with him if and when he gets all his books off the floor and properly shelved.  And that’s your golden opportunity.

“I’d say that was a good reason to buy a drill bit! Congratulations on getting married, then.  Frankly, you’re in luck!  Our bits are a bit more expensive than the ones over at Jones and Dogs, but we’ve got a special going that’s a real opportunity for you. Allow me to explain.”

“This month, we’re giving customers who buy even just one of our premium drill bits the opportunity to purchase a mattress at a 15% discount! What newlyweds aren’t about to wear out their old mattress and be in need of a new one?”

Yadda, yadda, yadda.  Now, let’s look closely at what’s going on here:

The guy comes in for a drill bit.  The bit is the feature.

The guy reveals he needs the bit to hang shelving.  The hole the bit will drill is the advantage — you can’t hang shelves without it.

Getting married is the benefit — the real or ultimate reason he wants a drill bit.

Last, the mattress is called an “upsale” — I’ve tacked that on to the core FAB sale just to show you one of the things FAB selling can set the stage for, but an upsale is not actually essential here.  It’s icing on the FAB cake.

Feature-Advantage-Benefit, almost nothing looks simpler.

In practice, it’s as hard to learn as returning a speeding tennis ball.  There are details upon details to it — and they can only be learned through persistent practice in situation after situation.

I have said nothing yet more than the equivalent of,  “You should aim to hit the ball into the other court and out of range of your opponent”.  It’s important to know that, it’s crucial to know that, but knowing it is not the same as doing it.  Far from that.

So here’s my first tip:  Look into selling something worth the effort you’re going to put into each sale.  Obviously, if you’re only selling drill bits, your payoff will never be great enough to justify going through FAB with each and every sale.  Think big.  Think, say, selling houses, where a single sale can net you thousands.  Or — think major corporate sales.

Next, begin practicing whatever it is you’re selling by role-playing the sales with a friend, or even all alone and just in your head. Try to think up a new and different FAB each time you role play.  In the end, you are likely to find considerable similarity in the advantages people are looking for, but perhaps great variation in the benefits.

For instance, two prospective home buyers might both want the advantages of locating in a good school district.  But the first might have college aspirations for their offspring, while the second might only be concerned with their kids “doing whatever they decide to do.”  How would you drive home the benefit of good schools to each? Should you probe the second prospect further to find new and different benefits?

Last — and this is key — keep in mind how crucial is the questioning stage.  You can seldom if ever apply FAB entirely correctly if you fail to gather enough information at the onset — especially in some complex sale, as is generally found in corporate sales.

The power of this approach lies squarely in how accurately you can tailor your FAB presentation to a specific individual.  In a way, uncovering those benefits is a cat and mouse game — more often than not you will need to learn how to be very skillful at probing for them or you will get fatally misled.   But the payoff from getting good at that can be huge.

And that is the approach summed up in a ridiculously too superficial manner.  Yet, the approach fully grasped and applied can be motivational beyond expectation.  You don’t need to lie, to use tricks, or pushiness to sell with it.  People will motivate themselves to buy once they grasp the chance you are giving them to realize their dreams.

I think most people will forget this post by tomorrow, and that’s ok.  I’ve found it difficult, more difficult than even I suspected at first, to adequately describe in a mere blog post what FAB is really all about. I can’t blame anyone for all too easily dismissing it.  Except Teresums, I can blame Teresums.

As for everyone else, I’ll make a deal with you, if you’ll make a deal with me.  Assuming you want to learn as much as I have to teach you about FAB and all that can go into it, simply email me with any questions you have.  I ask that you email me, rather than ask your questions in the comments, because my response will usually — but not always — be as detailed and informative as I think useful to you.

By the way, FAB can be applied to any situation in which you seek to persuade someone to do — or even to not do — something.  So feel free to contact me about, say, how to best go about persuading you partner to quit cooking yucky deep-fried mac and cheese for Tuesday’s diners, and switch to deep fried roadkill instead.

My email is paul_sunstone@q.com

Other than that, I wish you the best of luck!

Authenticity, Being True To Yourself, Business, Competence, Miscellaneous, Sales, Work

One Thing Most Successful Salespeople Have in Common — Plus: One Thing Most Extraordinary Salespeople Have in Common (Part I)

(About an 8 minute read)

As a former salesperson, I have long known for a fact that most successful salespeople are every bit as good at their jobs as the very cutest puppies are outstanding at selling folks on adopting them.

I mean that in the most encouraging way possible — if you are both in sales, and just as likeable as a puppy, then congratulations!  You are almost certainly well on your way to  a successful career, assuming you are not already successful.

And let’s face it, almost everyone of us these days is in sales to at least some extent — or when was the last time you had a job that did not require you to persuade someone to do something.  Because that’s all selling is — the art of person to person persuasion.

So whether you’re trying to persuade your boss to give you a raise — or more likely, given what I know of my noble and esteemed readers — you are trying to persuade your partner to wear that sexy chicken outfit you just had-to-have and bought at an obscenely inflated price from that ridiculous, young, door-to-door preacher who was wearing it because he was still too shy to preach the Gospel in the flesh — regardless of whether it’s a raise or a chicken outfit, you are in sales. At least, now and then.

In my book, the fact you are in sales means I might be able to help you.  No, not with the chicken outfit.  If you’ve already gone that far, then not I, nor even a highly skilled professional therapist, is likely to be able to still help you (So, you might as well use it tonight, right?  Go for it!).

But to return to the issue: How can I help you become adept in the fine art of persuasion?  Simply allow me to point out a vital key to maximizing your likeability. Be certain, absolutely certain, to use a quality lubricant!

To maximize your likeability, be as real as possible. Be authentic.  That’s it.

Yes, you can do a whole lot of other things, and you probably already know what at least some of those things are, but authenticity is both the single most powerful first step you can take, and it is often overlooked — especially by inexperienced salespeople.

You see, a lot of us folks think you must somehow change yourself to be maximally likeable.  There’s a little truth to that.  If you are doing something obnoxious, then you need to stop, you need to change.  But if that’s not the case, then focus on being yourself first and foremost.

Why?  I’ve found no better explanation of why than what Tony recently wrote:

…you know how you stubbed your toe this morning and wished damnation onto the whole world? Your prospect can relate to that.

You know that jalapeno you ate and it’s burning a hole in your mouth that’s wider than a river? Your prospect can relate to that.

You know the homegrown excitement your town has for their sports team? Your prospect can relate to that.

Being likeable is simply being a conscience human, doing the right thing and coming across as a real person.

Real respects real – remember that it’s coming across as a real live human – flaws, scars and all is what brings people closer together, not your super cool product with all the gadgets and gizmos!

Show your authentic self and make authentic connections.

Tony is a man to watch: I just quoted from the chapter of a soon to be published book that he gave me, along with some cash, for an old chicken outfit I used to wear while preaching, and I must say: Obviously, he knows his stuff.

Being authentic makes you human, makes you less of a threat (and who isn’t a little bit threatened on some level or another by someone soliciting them in a chicke?), and in making you less of a threat, allows you to all the more connect with your customer. People don’t buy from people they don’t trust, and they don’t trust people they think are “fakes”.

But people do indeed buy from people they like.  In fact, some pretty savvy salespeople have told me that “selling yourself” is not only the key to any sale, but is often all that is really needed to make a sale.

I myself am a little skeptical of that.  I know being likeable is something most successful salespeople have in common.  And I do know it takes you far – very far — all by itself.  But I doubt you could actually build a career on it alone.  You need, for instance, a decent product or service to sell.  And, among other things, you need to hustle your butt off — there are few substitutes for hard work.

But yeah, being likeable is still key. If you want to be truly successful in sales you will do what you can to be likeable — and generally speaking, the single most important thing you can do is be yourself.  Don’t put on airs.  Don’t try to change yourself unless that’s absolutely necessary.  Just be yourself.

Naturally, some folks won’t like the real you, but the ones that do like you, will like you so much better than any false front you can concoct — unless, perhaps, you’re a professional actor.

However, being likeable will probably not make you a once-in-a-hundred-years salesperson — an extraordinary salesperson.  For that you need something more — something so powerful that if you were actually disgusting, but still employed it, you’d have people buying from you.

For complete information on exactly what that is and how you too can master its power to make yourself rich, simply send $29.95 in unmarked dollars and cents to Uncle Sunstone’s Newest Scam, PO Box 69, Charging Bore, Colorado  80103, and include a nude selfie if you suspect you’re my type. Act today, and get a free g-string in the same style as the one I found stuck in my teeth this morning when I woke up in the club parking lot!

Now — getting serious for a moment — some folks are going to think what comes next is easy and simple to do.  It’s not, but it can be mistaken as such.  In truth, if you decide to go this route, you very much need to commit yourself to getting your nose bloodied a few times.  This is not easy stuff to master, no matter how easy it looks, and I can guarantee you will be sorely embarrassed when you flop your first few times in front of a customer.

Then again, let me tell you a true story.

I sucked — sucked — for years as a salesperson.  Don’t ask me why I stuck with it, because I don’t really know, but for years I was one of those guys we all know who is eternally on the verge of being fired for failure to perform his job — and perhaps you can imagine how I felt about that!

But I got lucky.  I went to work for a corporation that — though small — was one of the most profitable companies in its industry.  It had both the money and the will to invest heavily in training its small sales force of about 18 people.  So it made a faithful decision.

It went looking for the best sales trainer in the country, and it found Chuck.  Chuck’s fee was a flat $5000/day plus expenses in early 1980s dollars.  That would be over $12,000 today — for one day’s work.

Naturally, at those prices, my company checked him out. I’m told his references were so encouraging, the company called him within a day or two.

As you might guess, Chuck had been in sales before he went into sales training.  His former employer was a Fortune 500 that had been around for over 100 years.  Chuck rose through the sales ranks until he was in their top sales position with an annual quota set in the tens of millions of dollars.

Within a short time — no more than three years, if I can recall such a detail now — Chuck had not only exceeded his quota, but had set a 100 year sales record in dollars adjusted for inflation.

The next year, he broke his own record.

The year after that, he broke it again — and this time, he quit.  He quit to set up his own consulting business, but not before he was able to lure a senior vice-president away from the Fortune 500 to run the business side.  How many senior VPs would risk such a thing?

Chuck was an exceedingly persuasive man, even by the standards of professional salespeople.

But a funny thing happened when Chuck came to train us salespeople at five grand a day: I was just about the only one who took him seriously.

Yeah, I know.  You would expect all of us to.  But that’s not how the real world always works.  Unfortunately, the others dismissed Chuck as trying to teach them an impractical method.  Or they dismissed him as trying to teach them what they already knew (but actually didn’t).

Frankly, I myself was far too desperate to ignore Chuck.  So I set myself to learning. And my education was helped along by the fact that Chuck apparently took a particular liking to me — probably because I was paying attention.  Everyone else got seminars.  Several three day seminars.  I got the seminars too, but Chuck also convinced the management to pay for his going on sales calls with him. Again, at five grand a day. One on one tutoring.  How good can it get?

So what happened?

Well, it didn’t happen overnight.  Chuck was no miracle worker.  It took me about a year to catch on.  By which I mean, it was like learning tennis. You can’t learn tennis — you really have not caught on to it — until you can play a game.  Yes, that sounds obvious, but consider.  Some people think you can learn to sell by memorizing techniques from a book and then easily apply them to real life situations.

Hogwash.  To sell like Chuck, you have to practice, practice, and practice.  You have to go from customer to customer well past the point you are sick and tired of screwing up.  Then maybe, if you’ve worked hard enough, it starts coming together, it starts clicking.

At this point, my post is already too long for most folks to have read this far.  So I’m going to save the rest for another post, which I will publish soon — perhaps as soon as a day or so.  Stay tuned!  The payoff might be immense. Imagine!  Your very special someone could be wearing that chicken outfit to bed with you this very week!


Authoritarianism, Bad Ideas, Business, Capitalism, Citizenship, Class War, Community, Democracy, Economic Crisis, Economics, Economy, Equality, Evolution, Fairness, Fascism, Free Market Capitalism, Freedom, Freedom and Liberty, Hunter/Gatherers, Idealism, Ideologies, Income, Intellectual Honesty, Intelligentsia, Justice, Labor, Liars Lies and Lying, Market Fundamentalism, Memes, Neocons, Neoliberals, Obligations to Society, Oppression, Plutocracy, Political and Social Alienation, Political Ideologies, Political Issues, Politician, Politicians and Scoundrels, Politics, Poverty, Quality of Life, Religious Ideologies, Socialism, Society, Taxes, Values, Work

Wealth Inequality vs. Freedom and Liberty

(About a 10 minute read)

One of the more interesting notions that most of us seem to accept at one or another point in our lives is the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible.

I have heard that notion advanced in this manner: Jones has many marketable talents, while Smith has few marketable talents.  Thus, if Jones is free to make as much money as he can, he will make more money than Smith.  So, for Jones and Smith to be financially equal, something must done to limit Jones’ earnings.  But anything you do to limit Jones’ earnings deprives Jones of his freedom. Consequently, you cannot have both freedom and equality at the same time.

There is great truth in that.

Yet, the notion becomes extraordinarily problematic when we think that’s all there is to it.   For if we were to attempt to secure our freedoms and liberties by such a simple-minded principle as the notion that they can best be secured via allowing the unrestricted accumulation of wealth, we would soon enough find ourselves enslaved.

The problem is — in a nutshell — that Jones, if he gets too much wealth relative to Smith, will inevitably possess the means to subjugate Smith.

Of course, that’s not a real problem, according to some folks, because Jones is a decent old boy and would never think for a moment to use his wealth to destroy Smith’s freedoms and liberties — not even when crushing Smith and his foolish freedoms and liberties would benefit Jones.

Yes, some good folks actually believe that! And in my experience, there’s not much you can say to such folks that will convince them to change their minds once the idea has got hold of them that the only real issue here is the sacred right of Jones to earn as much money as he can, and retain nearly every last dime of it.  “Taxation is theft”, you know.

Rationality is not, on the whole, one of the distinguishing characteristics of our noble species of  poo-flinging super-sized chimpanzees.  That seems to be the case because we happily neglected to evolve our big brains in order to better discern truths.  Instead, we apparently evolved them for other reasons, which I have written about here and here, among other places.  So, I am not writing this post for those folks who are firmly convinced that the bumper-sticker insight, “taxation is theft”, is the very last and wisest word on the matter of wealth inequality.  I am writing this post for those comparatively open-minded individuals who might be looking for some thoughts about wealth inequality to mull over before arriving at any (hopefully, tentative) conclusions about it.

I believe that, to really understand wealth inequality, one needs to remember that we spent roughly 97% of our time as a species on this planet evolving to live in relatively egalitarian communities.  Communities in which there was typically (with a few exceptions) comparatively little political, social, or economic difference between folks.  Everyone was more or less equally engaged in the struggle for food to survive, whether they were hunters (mostly men) or gatherers (mostly women).

Then, about 5,500 years ago some jerk got it into their head that it would be a very good idea if most everyone else would work to support their lazy butt while they spent their hours leisurely whiling away the time ruling over them.  And thus was born the complex society.

“Complex” because there was now a relatively complex division of labor in which, instead of two basic occupations (hunter or gatherer), there were now many occupations (king, priest, lord, judge, craftsman, merchant, farmer, etc).   Moreover, the wealth, and with it, the power in those societies was now concentrated at the top.

The way in which the minority retained their positions over the majority was back then mainly three-fold, just as it still is today.  First, through ideologies justifying the power, wealth, and status of the minority.  “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king…”,  begins the ancient Sumerian king’s list.  Thus, from the very first, the masters were using ideologies to control the masses:  e.g. “kingship descends from  heaven”, and thus you should accept it as what the gods intend for you.

Second, through rallying the people to face a dire (usually external) threat.  It is mere human nature that we are most likely to surrender our freedoms and liberties in preference for slavishly following a leader when we feel threatened by a common enemy.  Indeed, an oppressive state — and not always just an oppressive one — needs a common enemy to unify the people under its boot.

When ideologies fail, then it is time to call upon the soldiers, of course.  Propaganda, a common enemy, and ultimately, force.  The three main pillars of government from the Sumerians to the current day.

In a way, the one major change has been that the government today is largely a front for the real masters — the wealthy corporations and individuals that so many politicians are beholden to, the economic mega-elites.

It should be noted that by “wealthy individuals”, I am not referring to the folks with a few million dollars, but to the folks with hundreds or (especially) billions of dollars.  The average millionaire, in my experience, is not much of a threat to the rights, freedoms, and liberties of others and, in fact, is often enough a defender of those rights.  Call him or her a “local elite” because they are so often focused economically, socially, and politically on the communities they live and work in.  And it seems their ties to those communities generally result in their being net benefactors to them.  But perhaps most importantly, they simply do not have the resources to compete politically with the billionaire class in order to buy the government.  That, at least, is my impression.

No, by “wealthy individuals” I mean the folks who have the resources to be genuine contenders to hold the reins of  power in this — or any — country.  In the most recent national election, the Koch brothers dumped nearly a billion dollars into buying politicians from the level of “mere” state legislators all the way up to the national Congress and Senate.  And they weren’t the only economic mega-elites in the game.

We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.  — Justice Louis D. Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court

The problem, of course, isn’t wealth itself, but the concentration of wealth in the hands of a relatively few people.  Over time, the concentration has a natural tendency to worsen.  That is, the wealth ends up in fewer and fewer hands.  Since power follows upon riches closer than a hungry dog follows a butcher, political power, as well, tends over time to end up in fewer and fewer hands.  There seems to be a natural tendency to progress from democracy to oligarchy, and then to dictatorship.

During the same recent forty year or so period in American history when huge tax cuts  for the wealthiest individuals and corporations allowed the billionaire class to explode in size, incomes for the middle class all but became stagnant, while the poor actually lost ground.  There’s no polite way of saying this: “Trickle down economics” is an ideology of oppression used to fool people into believing that cutting taxes on the wealthy will increase job growth.

The average American today arguably works harder, struggles more financially, and has fewer back up resources for a rainy day than his or her parents and grandparents had.  As it turns out, you can’t concentrate almost all the wealth in the hands of a relatively few economic mega-elites without hurting someone.  But who would have thought that?  After all, didn’t the ideologists inform us we’d all be better off cutting taxes on the wealthy?

A comprehensive study has found that the average American now has little or no influence on their legislators, and which bills get passed into law.  Those who determine both the content and success of legislation are the economic mega-elites of America, the billionaires and the large corporations.

Strong, responsible unions are essential to industrial fair play. Without them the labor bargain is wholly one-sided. The parties to the labor contract must be nearly equal in strength if justice is to be worked out, and this means that the workers must be organized and that their organizations must be recognized by employers as a condition precedent to industrial peace.  Louis D. Brandeis

But, of course, we do not wish to believe Brandeis today because the trusty ideologists have also told us unions are a net evil.  Got to trust those boys and girls!  It’s just not true that so very many of them are employed by billionaire funded think tanks and institutions.

Now, the rarest complex societies in history have been those in which most people were more or less free.  But those rare, relatively free societies have also tended at the same time to be more egalitarian.

Tocqueville, for instance, noticed that white males living in the America of the 1830s were both freer and more equal than white males living in either the England or France of the same period.  They were also, according to him, better off economically.  Again, both male and female citizens of the Roman Republic seem to have been both freer and more equal than their counterparts living under the dictatorships of  the Roman Empire.

So the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible, while perhaps seeming to have some inexorable reason and logic on its side, does not always pan out in practice.  Apparently, sometimes quite the opposite has been the case.

About 2000 years ago, Plutarch observed, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”  It will be interesting to see whether America has the political will to save its republic.

Business, Consumerism, Economy, Education, From Around the Net, Goals, Happiness, Internet, Learning, Life, Meaning, Outstanding Bloggers, Play, Purpose, Quality of Life, Stolen From The Blogosphere, Talents and Skills, Vacilando, Work

Vacilando: “Not All Who Wander Are Lost”

(About a 7 minute read)

In Spanish there is a word for which I can’t find a counterword in English. It is the verb vacilar, present participle vacilando. It does not mean vacillating at all.  If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere, but does not greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction.   — John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America.

Traveling can sometimes be a straightforward, grim business of getting from one place to another as efficiently as possible.  The goal looms large then, it becomes the lens through which everything else is seen.

Is the airport crowded?  The goal sees the throngs of people as nothing more than an obstacle to it, certainly not an opportunity for people watching.  The flight is delayed?  The goal is annoyed, irritated, and in no mood to fully enjoy the chance to finish reading a novel.  At the hotel, there’s just enough time to shower, change, and then for one last time prepare for the business meeting.  The goal doesn’t even think of exploring a nearby restaurant.

As a rule, the more efficiently one pursues a goal, the more ruthlessly one turns chance opportunities into distractions, annoyances, obstacles, or into things ignored, completely unseen.  In the end, one whittles down traveling to the point its only reward is attaining the goal.

Vacilando is almost the opposite of straightforward, grimly efficient travel.  It still has a goal, but the goal does not dominate the journey, it is not the lens through which everything along the way is single-mindlessly seen.  Vacilando, so to speak, is travel with a sense of humor.  The chance opportunities are not the obstacles of straightforward traveling, but rather the punch lines of vacilando.

It seems to me that vacilando, as a concept, should not be confined to merely labeling one kind of traveling.  For I believe the concept is more broadly applicable to life itself.  When we vacilando through life, we have some destination in mind, but we are in no efficient rush to reach it.  We are open to chance opportunities, detours, explorations, adventures.  And why shouldn’t we be?

In a discussion of vacilando over on the blog, Singledust, Frank Hubeny remarks:

It seems to me best to be more concerned [in life] about the means rather than the ends which we may not understand and which may turn out differently (both better or worse from some perspective) than we anticipated.  [bracketed material mine]

Indeed, no matter how firmly we believe in our life’s goals,  no matter how fixed an idea we have of them, life all so often plays with our expectations, throws back at us something that is not quite what we had in mind.

I remember a friend of mine, Al, who in his sixties perfectly reconciled himself to ending his life as a single man.  Then at 66 or 67, he had a heart attack.  That landed him in the hospital where a much younger 34 year old nurse took notice of him.  The two ended up moving in together.   And I’ll wager there’s not a person on earth over the age of 15 who doesn’t have dozens of such stories.  Stories of our firm and solid expectations knocked to pieces by life’s apparently endless fascination with messing with us.

To attempt to journey through life as straightforward as a bullet shot at a target is perhaps a species of insanity.  It certainly sets one up for disappointment, which if not entirely inevitable, is surely the odds on favorite bet of the gods.  But worse than any disappointment at not reaching one’s goals, might be the missed opportunities for exploration, discovery, growth, and unexpected fulfillment.

I have read of psychological studies that find people towards the end of their lives value the experiences they’ve had far more than the possessions they owned.  If they have regrets they are usually not for failing to own a bigger house, a faster boat, more jewelry, or finer clothes; their regrets are for missing their kid’s performance in Arsenic and Old Lace, failing to take that trip down the Amazon, so seldom eating as a family, forever putting off the dance lessons, making excuses not to attend the family reunions.

But those are merely regrets for what one knows one missed.  Whole new worlds can be closed off to us when we wear the blinders of too efficiently  pursuing a narrow goal in life.  It is both tragic that today’s economy forces so many of us to almost single-mindlessly live as if enslaved to financial goals.  We work longer and longer hours to meet the obligations of our mortgage, our kid’s higher education, our retirement fund, and so forth, taking fewer and shorter vacations, spending less and less time with our family and friends, ruling out so many life enhancing things that we no longer have the time for.  For far too many of us, the journey through life is becoming an unending business trip.

That’s unlikely to change unless and until enough people rise up to demand a more equitable share of the world’s wealth — for we live in an ironic age:  The world economy is the richest in the history of humanity, and grows leaps and bounds by the minute, yet because those riches are increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the average person in most developed countries now struggles harder than his or her parents and grandparents did forty or fifty years ago, when the global economy was a fraction of what it is today.

Is vacilando still possible?  Surely to some extent it is, but I wonder whether it is a realistic option on a large scale.  I spent five and half years at university, taking courses not only in my major and two minors, but in nearly every major field of science with a little English literature thrown in for the fun of it.   Yet, tuition was low back then and I graduated virtually debt free, and with an education that has endlessly enriched the quality of my life.  Today’s graduates, however, must “rush” through university in four years, least they rack up too big of a bill, and yet, they still graduate with an average student debt of $37,172 .  Vacilando on a large scale might be all but dead.

Dead or not, it still strikes me as a worthy ideal, and it still seems obtainable on smaller scales — How one spends a weekend, or even a single day.  Even, if one has the time, how one approaches an activity, such as a hobby.  Are you planning out what you wish to accomplish as if your hobby were a military campaign, or are you meandering through it, exploring as much as progressing?  On a small scale, vacilando still seems possible.

D. H. Lawrence somewhere in The Virgin and the Gypsy writes that the challenge for youth is to find the “unexpected and undiscovered door” to their future fulfillment in life.  An implication is that that door is different for different people, for it cannot be found once, it’s location marked, and then maps to it distributed to others.   Yet, discovering it, and then passing through it, is essential to living a fulfilling life.  Lawrence’s door, I think, represents the juncture where our talents meet the needs of society, for it is there that we find our bliss in life.  And I believe, based on my experience, that life has a way of leading us to that door when we respond sensitively and inquisitively to the chance opportunities life offers us.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a discussion of vacilando going on over at Gina’s blog, which can be found here.   Or you are more than welcome to comment on it on this blog.  Either way, please let me know what you make of the concept!

Last, J. R. R. Tolkien reminded us that, “Not all who wander are lost”.  That seems to me to capture something of the core spirit of vacilando.  To wander, but with a sense of direction.


Hat Tip to Aayush, who’s explanation for the name of his blog, The Vacilando, got this whole thing started.  Aayush is an admirable 16 year old blogger whose clear, easy-to-read prose could be that of a 32 year old.

Business, Competition, Goals, Life, Psychology, Sales, Science, Talents and Skills, Values, Work

How to Make Positive Thinking Work for You

(About a 9 minute read)

When I gave positive thinking a try some decades ago and it didn’t work for me, I concluded it was for the other guy.  That is, I didn’t write it off for everyone, because too many people were telling me that it worked for them, but I did write it off for me.  I didn’t know then that I myself routinely indulged in a kind or species of positive thinking.

I had a mental habit — and I still do — of first daydreaming about something I wanted, such as honesty in politics,  improving my painting skills, or — most often — to see Terri’s breasts in the moonlight once again.  I’d let my mind wander imagining her magnificently pleasing honesty in politics, etc, and all that those things meant or implied.  That was the positive thinking part of it.

Sooner or later, however, my mind would turn to assessing the problems and challenges involved in making those things happen.  How could I overcome those problems and challenges?  Sometimes I’d realize at that point that there were few if any practical ways of overcoming them (e.g. in the case of pure honesty in politics).  Yet, often enough, I’d come up with a workable plan to obtain my wishes.

That was and is my version of positive thinking.  It seems to be something that I long ago just lucked into, because I have no memory of it having been taught to me.   It turns out, though, that I’m not alone in doing it.

Gabriele Oettingen is a scientist who studies how people think about the future, and who writes about positive thinking, among other things.  Based on over twenty years of research, Oettingen has concluded:

While optimism can help us alleviate immediate suffering and persevere in challenging times, merely dreaming about the future actually makes people more frustrated and unhappy over the long term and less likely to achieve their goals. In fact, the pleasure we gain from positive fantasies allows us to fulfill our wishes virtually, sapping our energy to perform the hard work of meeting challenges and achieving goals in real life.

In a New York Times article that is well worth reading in its entirety, she writes:

My colleagues and I have since performed many follow-up studies, observing a range of people, including children and adults; residents of different countries (the United States and Germany); and people with various kinds of wishes — college students wanting a date, hip-replacement patients hoping to get back on their feet, graduate students looking for a job, schoolchildren wishing to get good grades. In each of these studies, the results have been clear: Fantasizing about happy outcomes — about smoothly attaining your wishes — didn’t help. Indeed, it hindered people from realizing their dreams.

But Oettingen does not recommend giving up on positive thinking entirely.

In a turn of events certain to astound and confuse my two ex-wives, I have actually gotten something right in my life.  I am sooo going to email this blog post them! Of course, I am far above gloating about it, but it happens that Oettingen and her colleagues have discovered that combining positive thinking about one’s wishes with realistically thinking about the problems and challenges to obtaining one’s wishes is an effective way to realize those wishes.  At least, those wishes that are basically realizable in the first place.  The psychologists call it “mental contrasting“:

What does work better is a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with “realism.” Here’s how it works. Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.

This simple process, which my colleagues and I call “mental contrasting,” has produced powerful results in laboratory experiments. When participants have performed mental contrasting with reasonable, potentially attainable wishes, they have come away more energized and achieved better results compared with participants who either positively fantasized or dwelt on the obstacles.

When participants have performed mental contrasting with wishes that are not reasonable or attainable, they have disengaged more from these wishes. Mental contrasting spurs us on when it makes sense to pursue a wish, and lets us abandon wishes more readily when it doesn’t, so that we can go after other, more reasonable ambitions.

I think mental contrasting can help with far more than meeting near universally felt personal goals such as weight loss, job promotion, skill improvement, or smooching with Terri.  I think it can also help with such things as developing a realistic politics.  In fact, I’d argue that several of the American Founders were more or less masterful at reconciling their idealism with both eternal political realities and the circumstances of their time.  It’s my guess they did so by intuitively employing some form of mental contrasting.

Now, as long as we’re on the subject of getting what you want, I’d like to add here a second technique that I have personally found helpful.  I don’t know of any science, however, that either supports or discourages this second technique.  But, for whatever it might be worth, I’ve found it to be efficacious in obtaining your goals.  This is not a technique that I came up with on my own, though.

Thirty-five or so years ago, I was struggling at a job in corporate sales.  I wasn’t even coming close to making my monthly quotas, and perhaps the only two reasons that I wasn’t fired for lack of performance were that most of my fellow sales people were in the same boat (it was one tough industry to be a salesperson in!), and that the management of the company were ridiculously old fashioned enough to care about their employees.  One way they showed that care for us was to, instead of firing us all, hire a sales coach.  An excellent coach, as it turned out.

Within about year, I’d turned myself around.  But I didn’t fully realize by how much I had improved until the Chief Financial Officer took me aside at an employee meeting to inform me that in the first quarter of the year I had added more revenue to the company’s coffers than all the other salespeople combined.  The quarter after that, I beat my own new record by such a margin that I, who have always been the most hard-working, dedicated, and conscientious of employees, was able to negotiate an immediate month long paid vacation.  “You sure don’t want me burnt out for the rest of the year, do you?  I needs me fishing time!”

I put my turnaround down to that coach, and to the fact I was one of the few salespeople who took his lessons to heart.  Maybe that was due to the fact he’d told me something revealing about the effectiveness of his methods: “Most people are either going to dismiss out of hand what I’m trying to show them, or they’re going to give it a single try, get their noses bloodied, and give up on it all.  The fact is, there’s a learning curve to these things.  You can’t expect to get it right the first time, nor even the second or third times.  It’s just like learning tennis: It takes a lot of practice to become good at it.”  I was determined not to give up on his lessons until I’d given them a fair shot.

I won’t go much into the first thing he taught me.  It revolutionized how I sold to people, and it’s probably the more important of his lessons, but it’s largely irrelevant in this context.  The second thing, though, is pertinent.

Simply put, my coach changed my thinking by defining a goal as “a lens through which one sees opportunities”.  I can no longer recall what I thought a goal was before then, but I do recall goals had always intimidated me.  Yet, after I began to practice his lesson in earnest, I no longer felt intimidated by them.

By “a lens through which one sees opportunities” he meant, in part, that you should become at least mildly obsessed with your goal.  You should start looking for ways to reach it everywhere and in everything.  Suppose, for instance, you sold furniture, and you were at a party during which someone mentioned to you that their girlfriend had just given them the ultimatum, “Get your books off the floor or I’m leaving!”.  If you were properly obsessing, you’d at once see that as an opportunity to sell them some of your shelving.

Besides making me alert to such straight-forward opportunities as that one, I found obsessing on my goal brought out my creativity.  I began seeing more and more obscure opportunities.  In the end, it was as if I couldn’t drive to work in the mornings without seeing at least a half dozen things that would pop ideas into my head about how to sell my service to some business or another.

Now to be sure, there was a downside to turning my goal into an obsession.  That was driven home to me in a WTF? moment one day.   I was waiting in my car at a stoplight, and I had just thought of a way my service could boost one of my client’s sales from repeat customers.  I wanted nothing more than to get the office and call him for an appointment.  An old woman with a walker was slowly crossing the street when the light turned green.  Without thinking of her, but only of my goal, I started honking the horn.  Abruptly, I realized what a jerk I’d become!

So I think that, when turning a goal into an obsession,  you should bear in mind the dangers of becoming ruthless in your pursuit of it.   But, apart from that, the practice has served me well over the years.

Of course, when adopting or creating a goal for myself, I perform mental contrasting to understand it and the problems and challenges to realizing it.   I regret that I have no science for you that suggests seeing your goal as a lens through which to spot opportunities actually works for anyone other than me, but it might still be something you should give a try.  Just don’t start honking at people when they’re trying to cross the street!

Abuse, Business, Children, Cultural Traits, Culture, Equality, Equality of Opportunity, Family, Feminism, Ideologies, Income, Kindness, Management, Oppression, People, Political Ideologies, Political Issues, Poverty, Professionals, Quality of Life, Society, Talents and Skills, Work

I Didn’t Learn the Truth Until I was Twenty-Two

During all the years between my birth and leaving home to attend university, I witnessed my mother crying once, and once only.  To my shame, it happened after I made a cruel remark accusing her of being responsible for our family’s poverty.

I was 17 by then and, since I’d never seen her cry before, I had up until that moment naively assumed there was nothing in this world — no misfortune, no tragedy, no evil  — that could move her to tears.  When the tears came I was at a loss of what to do, so I did nothing.  Instead, I sat in my chair shocked into disbelieving silence while she sat in her chair simultaneously crying and apologizing to me for having lost control of her emotions.  Apologizing just as if she was committing some outrageous, inexcusable offense.

Looking back, I think the event should have taught me volumes about how great and deep was my mother’s sense of responsibility for our poverty.  But instead of fully reflecting on the event, I went into denial of its significance.  That is, I didn’t deny it had happened.  But I denied it was important or meaningful.

That was my way of handling the terrifying thought that some aspects of life could overwhelm her.  I was not at 17 fully conscious of the fact that my mother was the source of my strength, but conscious of it or not, I still deeply needed to believe there was nothing in life she couldn’t handle, and that by implication, there was nothing in life that I myself couldn’t handle just as well.

Consequently, she and I never again brought up between us the subject of our family’s poverty, and so I did not discover from her the proper causes of it.

One of those causes was that she was the sole breadwinner for our family of four.  My father had died relatively young, leaving mom with the burden of fending alone for me and my two brothers.  My older brother was only four at the time, so of course she had the added burden of very young children to raise.

Women back then had few job opportunities.  In 1960, only 38% of women worked outside their homes, and most of them were limited to working as teachers, nurses, waitresses, clerks, or secretaries.  Exceedingly few were in management.  Yet, my mother became one of the exceptions.

After my father died, she moved us from the city where we were living to the small town that she herself had grown up in.  Her move was a strategic decision:  She needed the support of her friends and family who still lived there.

Her decision paid off.

When a job as the CEO of small housing and apartment corporation headquartered in the town opened up, some of her family and friends went to work successfully lobbying the board of directors to hire mom.  That’s how things are so often done in a small town.  Your friends and/or family go to bat for you by talking with people they know who are in a position to hire you — or even talking with people who know people who are in a position to hire you.

The company had been operating in the red, but mom succeeded in turning the company around, and putting it in the black, where she kept it for the rest of her long, forty year career.

By the time I graduated from university, the company was being written up in industry magazines as a model business, and mom had become modestly well known within those circles not only for her competence in running the company, but also for her willingness to mentor other executives at non-competing companies around the nation.

Yet it was not until near the end of her career that she was paid much more than was necessary for our family’s survival.  In 1960, the average family income in America was $6,691.57.  Mom, who is a very private person even in many ways to her own family, has not told me how much she herself earned in 1960, but I have ample reasons to believe it was less  than the average for an American family, let alone less than the average for the family of a business executive.

One pound of round steak cost $1.06 at the time, much more expensive than hamburger or chicken.   Because of the expense, I didn’t know what round steak — or any other steak — tasted like until I was 11 years old, when I became the first of my brothers to eat a steak.  One day my best friend happened to mention that his mom was preparing T-bones for his supper that night, so I naturally asked him if T-bones were any good, because I didn’t know.  His mother overheard us and kindly decided to invite me to supper.

Strangely, it didn’t occur to me until I was in my mid-teens that we were a seriously poor family.  I always knew we weren’t as well off as many families, but there were still poorer families than ours.  Besides, we never went without a meal, there was a roof over our heads (thanks entirely to my aunt, who bought a house for us to live in), we were clothed, and we had books.  For some reason that I’m sure of, the books upon books in our house assured me that we were doing just fine.

Consequently, I simply assumed up until the age of about 15 or 16 that most of the signs of our poverty were due to my mother’s tastes.  Few toys for Christmas?  That was, to my mind, because mom thought toys were mostly frivolous and unnecessary.  No family vacations?  Another frivolous thing.  No expensive foods?  Mom has no appetite for them.  And so forth.

Sometime in the late 1960s or very early 1970s, I quite bluntly demanded of mom to know how much she earned.  To my surprise — because this wasn’t the sort of thing she was usually willing to reveal — she swore me to never tell anyone outside the family, and then she all but whispered a figure to me.  I can no longer recall what that figure was, but I do still remember that it sounded like a lot of money to me, and that I came away thinking we were solidly middle class.

The only other thing I now recall about that figure was that — back when I still remembered what it was — I was surprised when a professor mentioned in a class the same figure as the poverty threshold for a family of four in perhaps 1970 or thereabouts.  In short, my family had that time been living at the poverty line.  But I didn’t learn the reason for that until I was 22, the year my aunt died.

I came home for the funeral, but couldn’t stay at my mom’s house because the bedrooms were to be used by out of town family members.  One of mom’s best friends, however, had some bedrooms for the three of us nephews, and so we stayed the evening of the funeral at her house.  The next morning, she made breakfast for us.

I have no recollection of what prompted Ann to tell us the story that morning, but she did.  Over pancakes and sausage, she told us how troubled our mother had always been in the years we were growing up.

Now except for a few phrases and sentences, I can no longer recall the exact words Ann spoke that morning.  But I am fairly confident that I still remember the points she made — and sometimes the manner in which she made them. To me, the conversation my brothers and I had with Ann that morning is one of the most significant conversations of my life.   What follows is part recollection and part re-creation.  However, I have left out some things that I suspect might have been said, but which I’m not confident enough were said.

Today, I don’t remember what prompted Ann to start off, but she began something like this: “Were any of you boys ever aware during your childhoods of how constantly worried your mother was about your poverty?” We all said “no”.

“Some evenings your mother and I spoke for hours about it.  You see, it never left her mind that you boys were always one step away from disaster.   She knew all that had to happen was a major illness or an accident befalling any one of you, you or her, and she could be reduced to the poor house, maybe see you all split up.  She had nothing to fall back on, no savings.”  I seem to recall Ann pausing then, and perhaps taking a puff off her cigarette, before going on:  “She was paid jack all the years you were growing up.”

Someone asked why.

“Do you want to know the truth?” Ann responded.  Then, placing an equal weight on each word she spoke, Ann said in an unusually emphatic voice:  “Because. Ike. Bachmann. was. a. bastard.”

I recall the word “bastard” was mildly jolting coming from Ann, who was more than a decade older than mom — and therefore presumably even more conservative than mom in her opinions about the impropriety of swear words — and who was also quite active in the Presbyterian Church.  Bachmann must have been a real bastard for Ann to call him that.

Even now, I can still see her slowly searching each of our faces for comprehension, perhaps trying to see if we could now put two and two together for ourselves.  Her manner gave me the further impression that she was determined we would remember the words she’d just spoken for a very long time, maybe even the rest of our lives.

Still, I was confused.  What did Ike Bachmann have to do with any of this?  In my recollection, mom had not once spoken ill of the former chairman of her board.  In fact, she had seldom spoke of him at all to us, and when she did, she had usually called him, “Ike”, as if he were a familiar friend to her.  He’d died not more than two or three years before my aunt’s death.

My older brother broke the silence.  “What did Bachmann do?”

“What didn’t he do?” Ann replied.  “He treated your mother like a slave, for one thing.  But mostly he was one of those men.  What’s that word you young people use for ‘those men’ nowadays?  Male something…chauvinists!  I’m not one of those feminist women, but they do have a point about men like Bachmann.

“Bachmann was just as old-fashioned as country outhouse.  He was hot-tempered.  It didn’t take a lot to set him off.  And when he got angry, he was raw, nearly unrestrained.  Arrogant, too.  But mostly he was a bastard.  A pure bastard.

“Your mother, you know, had to deal with him until the day he retired, about a year before he died.”

“Would it be alright if I asked now exactly how he was a bastard?” I said, “I mean I don’t doubt he was a major one from what you say, but what exactly did he do?”

“Ike Bachmann.” Ann began. “Well first there was no telling him that your mother could do just as well as a man in her job.  It didn’t matter how well she did, he always went about telling people that if he could replace her with a man, that man would do better.  And I know there were times he came close to replacing her.

“Now and then some man in the town would get interested in having your mother’s job.  Then like as not, he’d start talking to people, telling anyone who’d listen, that it just wasn’t right your mother had her job when there were men out there who needed to support their families.  It happened several times over the years, and that’s how it usually started.  With talk.  Did you boys ever know any of this?”

We shook our heads.

“I know.  Your mother never told you.  She didn’t want you scared, of course, you were just children.

“Anyways, word would sooner or later get back to Bachmann that someone wanted her job.  Or maybe someone would just straight up tell him they wanted your mother’s job.  But it usually started with them politicking about it, trying to gather supporters, and put a little pressure on Bachmann and the rest of her board.  The thing is, Bachmann never once stood up for your mother.

“Some of the other board members now and then did, but not her chairman.  Not even once.  Well, I don’t know about every last time a man came looking for your mother’s job, but the times I do know something about it, Bachmann offered them her job.”

I think at that point, my older brother said, “What?” in disbelief.  My younger brother in anger hammered out the word, “Damn!”  And I’m pretty sure I  stared at Ann with my mouth nearly slack-jawed in shocked silence.

“To my knowledge, only one thing — only one thing — stopped Bachmann from replacing your mother.   And that was Bachmann’s greed.

“You see, he was too greedy to pay even a man more than he paid your mother.  Your mother was fortunate, very fortunate, that none of those men accepted Bachman’s offers.  You’d have been in serious trouble.  All four of you.”

After what seemed like quite awhile, my older brother asked, “Did mom ever talk to you about getting a different job?”

“At least a few times each year!  But what kind of jobs are there for women in this one-tractor town?  There were plenty of reasons your mother couldn’t just quit, and that was one of them.  Maybe another day we’ll have time to talk about them all.”

Ann fell silent for a moment as if making a decision, then, “I want all three of you to promise me that you’ll never tell your mother what I’ve told you today.  She’d be embarrassed to death, you know.”  We responded with our promises.

Regrettably, I never did get a chance to question Ann about all the reasons mom didn’t just get a different job.  But whatever mom’s reasons, I’d lay money they weren’t frivolous or light ones.  Mom was just as rational as she was stoic.  Even now, forty years after the conversation with Ann, I still have yet to meet more than a relative handful of people who are as consistently rational as mom was before dementia set in when she was around 94 or so.

As for Ike Bachmann, his attitude towards women was in most ways commonplace in that town.  That is, some jobs were commonly thought of as “men’s work”; women lacked whatever it took to do them as well as a man; which was one good reason to pay them less; and so forth.

But I think that when Ann called Bachmann a bastard she was not just referring to the attitudes towards women that he shared with so many other people.  I later learned a few more things about Bachmann, and it now seems probable to me that he was misogynistic.  Ann was probably right: Ike Bachmann was a bastard.