So You Wanna be a Boxer?
Exactly one day earlier, the most gruelling fight of my graduate career had taken place - spanning 12 hours from 8.00am to 8.00pm. The email invite was purposefully ambiguous and insisted on only three things:
1) All candidates were required to arrive in formal attire.
2) We would be attending an “industry event” at some point during the day.
3) Written assessments would be used to test our aptitude for interview.
Accordingly, I arrived in my best suit and the bell sounded. I quickly learned that the “industry event” involved being outside for 8 straight hours while sales whizzes threw persuasive punches at uninterested strangers in the street. As the Scottish winter was approaching, the weather was freezing and my sheer tights did not help things. However, the cold and the competition made it necessary for me to get the gloves out. Determined to see things through, I spent most of the day sitting at an outdoor Subway © table writing down answers to complicated questions – too busy to eat or go to the bathroom. When we reached the 6-hour mark, my supervisor 'Steve' noticed my shivering and decided to bend the rules by offering me a jacket and, eventually, letting me sit indoors for a while. By the time I stepped into the ring, I got the job based partly on my joyful reaction to seeing Muhammad Ali's portrait on the wall (though mostly thanks to Steve's recommendation).
When I first entered the rowdy AM focus room, the first thing I heard was Drake’s Back to Back rumbling through a quaking speaker. Rap lyrics whipped through the air faster than a jump rope. Flexing young sales reps shouted over the music and brainstormed around whiteboards to strategize their daily number goals. The energy in the room was contagious and, eventually, the charismatic manager ‘Jordan’ entered like a champ and began his team motivation ritual. There were stories, jokes, hard-facts and foundational statistics while the loud music never stopped – forcing us to listen closely and project our voices when we spoke.
With Steve as my personal trainer, I practised combinations and sales jabs that incorporated principals such as greed, aspiration, anxiety and other social pressures that can influence behaviour. I had a lot of fun with him. I enjoyed the feeling of victory that came with controlling conversations and the comfort of knowing that the more times a strong sequence is repeated, the greater its chances of success are. However, there was something ironic about my mentorship. On one hand, I was warned to never make any long-term decisions based on short-term emotions. On the other hand, I was being trained to manipulate strangers into signing long-term direct-debits based on the temporary feelings of happiness I could bring them.
A few mornings later, I was summoned in to talk with Jordan. My theory training was coming to an end and it was time for me to review my contract. It was then that I learned that while the job advertisement had listed an annual salary and a 6-day working week model, the contract was self-employed and the pay was 100% commission based. No knockouts, no income. No wonder he was such an incredible motivator! Then, trying to hide my disappointment over being misled, I asked him a question: “As a business owner, how do you personally hold yourself accountable for your staff and clients?”
I was concerned about how he regarded the safety, progression, morale and overall success of a team that he was under no contractual obligation to take care of. When he failed to give an adequate answer, I was left biting my lip. However, I thought back to what I had seen at the “industry event”: sales reps starting conversations with total strangers and handling hundreds of face-to-face rejections in a single day. If nothing else, experiencing the job was a sure-fire way to overcome my fear of rejection; a fear that was holding me back and affecting my confidence as a writer. I tentatively signed and thanked Jordan before quietly challenging myself to work seven days in the field.
The Main Event
When the time finally came, I travelled with 3 other sales reps to the street where we would be promoting for the next week. As the sales desk was being set up, frazzled pigeons marched around the square while a group of beat-up old men had set up camp on a bench. Drained bottles of wine rolled against the concrete by their feet as they sang and scrapped with each other while a happy mutt wagged his tail in delight. It was 9.00am and we were posted spitting distance from Poundland, Pound-Stretcher and a We-Buy-Gold-4-Cash store. I was surprised that we had been sent to one of the roughest areas of the city to ask people for money. However, the team reassured me that the beauty of sales statistics is that they always work.
This was more than could be said for the people I spoke to each day; many of them were unemployed and on benefits. New immigrants with limited English were bundled into warm coats. Stoners in poverty swayed over to shake me by the shoulders, offer me beer or talk to me about the healing power of Christ. Every lunchtime, dependant adults in various states of need were taken out into the world by their carers: some staring blankly ahead while others smiled and were eager to talk to me. Vulnerable old people coughed into tissues and struggled forward on crutches only to be interrupted by sales reps who hoped to profit from the Customer Long-term Value that their wrinkles seemed to promise. Despite being new, I was able to start up conversations with more strangers than any of my associates. Despite being frequently dismissed and insulted by those who did not care, I developed a strange pleasure from identifying and politely avoiding the negative people. Either way, many people chose to stop and listen to what I had to say. But the more I talked to them, the less I wanted their money.
On what later came to be my last day, I was praised for the promise I showed as a hard-working candidate and told that management expected me to accelerate quickly. That very afternoon, an 8-year-old boy with lime green Joker-style hair and no school uniform arrived by the marketing stand. With wide blue eyes, he watched us with curiosity as we pitched and eventually asked if he could join in. I looked around to see where his mother was, but he did not share my concern for her whereabouts. Instead, he put some promotional leaflets on top of the R-Rated video game he was carrying around with him and began handing them out to people. A half-hour later, he called out: "There she is!"
I sighed with relief, only to see that he was actually hailing his 6-year old sister and the little baby who was asleep in the pram that she was pushing alone. Again, no parents were in sight. Soon, the kids disappeared into a café and I saw sales reps attempting to generate commission from people who were drunk and, in another instance, someone who clearly had serious learning disabilities. As we were packing up at the end of the week, I couldn't help but comment on the territory: "There are a lot of vulnerable people in this area, huh?"
Steve replied. "Well, it's because they're not career-focused."
As young graduates, we can often feel burdened by the pressure to achieve. Sometimes, we want to earn trophies to prove ourselves worthy or to silence the opponents in our lives. However, one of the most valuable pieces of career advice I have been given is as follows:
Most often, the expectations that other people set for you are reflections of their own experiences, fears and insecurities and have little to do with what you are actually capable of. If it is in their interest to keep you down, they will try to do that. If it profits them to lift you up, they might promise you the world. But the personal desires and values that you choose to pursue are what end up making you. Accordingly, only take in another person's opinion of you if you would be happy to trade positions with them.
Through this job, I was able to overcome my fear of rejection in a major way and re-frame it with positive intent and a constructive attitude. In fewer words, it toughened me up. For this, I am extremely grateful and have no doubt that this mindset will continually serve me well; especially as I make my way as a writer. While I am as ready as ever to invest in a successful future in communications and marketing, I'm not willing to sacrifice my compassion or integrity to get there. Often, learning what you won't do is just as important as learning what you will do and at the end of the day, it's not about throwing the towel in. It's about being willing to take a few risks in order to discover your own potential.