Shoe Lessons: Selling Starts When You’re Sold

As I write now, I’m wearing a pair of Brooks PureConnect running shoes. They feel snug on my feet, the rubber slightly stiff against my heels and arches, save for the toe ends where there’s just a little space, but well within the one-finger-width maximum allowable limit. The shoes have a thin mesh exterior, veiling a chassis of what looks like Swiss-cheese rubber, the kind one would see on Crocs (which, incidentally, I have never worn, not even at the height of their popularity, nor will I ever wear).

Walking with them, I could feel the weight, shape, and overall ergonomics of the pair coaxing my feet to hit the ground a certain way, with the heel and midfoot landing first, but immediately rolling forward towards the mid-foot, so that it would bear my weight for a longer period of time (which I’ve been given to understand is a healthier way to run). The heel is also rounded, which probably will translate to a smoother side-to-side pivot should the course require it.

Excited at the prospect of running with them; almost definite that I’ll have a better time, both in terms of enjoyment and average pace. While I’m almost certain this will be due to a psychological “placebo effect” the first time, since I’d probably be more motivated to run well with new running shoes (doing a Google search on “motivational placebo effect” turned up this post on Lifehacker), I’m pretty sure these babies will help me do better in the long run (yes, pun intended–what’re YOU going to do about it?).

Overall, really satisfied with this acquisition, save for one minor point: they’re not green. Not a trace of green on them.

It Began with a Sale

Right now, I have just two pairs of running shoes:  a black and blue pair of FILA shoes (they kind of look like this, but not exactly) which are too big for my feet (I used to not bother with fit too much, thinking that a size 8 is a size 8 no matter what brand you wear); and a grey and green pair of Nike Fusion Lites (which I bought much more recently and fit much better).

It’s silly, but seeing only two shoes in my portfolio didn’t sit well with me; a proper set that can be rotated should have at least three elements. So I decided to buy a new pair. Not necessarily soon, but just when a good opportunity presents itself. I kept an occasional eye out for shoe sales. Last week, I saw this one, and remembered learning somewhere that Brooks was a good brand. Some friends who are more hardcore runners than I am confirmed this, and recommended that I go for the Pure Project line of shoes.

So it was with this advice that I went to a sporting goods store yesterday. I resolved to fulfill two criteria: 1) buy a new pair of Brooks running shoes; 2) make sure they’re green, or at least partially so. Why green? Because it’s my favorite color. A lot of my running accessories are green, and whenever I could get away with it, I’d get things in green.

Meeting the Shoe Guy

Going in, I made a beeline for the Brooks line of running shoes, which occupied a panel on the left wall of the store, in between the much wider swaths of real estate reserved for Adidas and Nike. I asked the nearest attendant for advice on good running shoes from Brooks. He seemed like a newbie, and pulled in someone who was more qualified to respond to my inquiry.

And boy, was he qualified. You wouldn’t give this guy a second look–not that he’s quiet or closed off or anything; just unremarkable. But when he heard that I was looking for Brooks running shoes, it’s like an internal switch was tripped, and some sort of complex, seamless, well-worked-out sales subroutine was initiated. The Shoe Guy asked whether I needed a neutral or stability shoe, and was helpful enough to explain those terms to me (I had a rough idea, but wanted to make sure I had the right one). He pulled down different shoes from the wall, going on and on about the relative advantages of each.

As I tried different pairs on, he declaimed at length about the different brands: Nike was popular among the general shoe-buying public, but Adidas was better for running because of its Adiprene technology; hardcore runners, though, would consider nothing but Saucony or Brooks, although Saucony, while more lightweight, lost out on durability. It was a good thing I was already set on buying Brooks since they were on sale; I agonize when it comes to decisions, especially when each alternative has pros and cons. He said it was a good choice, gesturing towards the blue and white Brooks shoes on his feet, which he explained had gotten him through three 21-km runs without a hitch.

(I recently learned that there are different kinds of salesmen based on their styles and temperaments. The Shoe Guy was a classic repairman–expert with an aim to help solve a problem. Here’s an explanation of the different types if you want to know where you fall.)

Settling for the Best Fit

The shoes he picked out were great in the aspects that mattered. The fit was good, and he explained how the cushioning, the soles, and the inside of the shoe were engineered to satisfy serious runners with sophisticated, discriminating tastes. The fact that they were on sale, with at least 30% of the price knocked off, was icing on the cake. He even recommended that I run around the store with them, confident that I’d find the perfect pair. 

Well, he wasn’t right exactly. After going through the different pairs, I realized that none of them were green. Not a single pair had a hint of it. I asked whether they had any different colors in stock, and he said unfortunately, they didn’t.

I was torn. From the shoes he pulled down, the PureConnect model felt the best. Good fit, good traction, good stride, good response. Across the board, they felt awesome. Why did they have to be not green at all?

I considered leaving and looking for a store where they had what I wanted, but something bothered me, like a little pebble that somehow managed to insinuate itself in between my toes in the middle of a 5-km run. It was this; I didn’t need green shoes. I just wanted them. And I liked the Shoe Guy; he was competent, attentive, not passive but not too forward. If anyone deserved a commission from my shoe money, right at that moment, it was him.

So with a strong exhalation, I let go of the green. I chose the best-fitting pair, and was happy with them as I walked out the store. The 40% discount made me even happier.

And I didn’t just take home a pair of shoes yesterday. I took home a lesson; a desire to help goes a long way in making a customer happy. But when you combine that with expert knowledge and enthusiasm in whatever it is you’re selling (whether it’s a good or a service), it can make the customer ignore preferences he initially had going in. And if there’s one thing that can bring inspire enthusiasm and expertise, it’s when you believe in what you’re selling.

So whether you deliver value to the world through service or through selling, make sure you believe in whatever you bring to the table. Start by selling yourself; then you can sell to others.

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On Discipline and Satisfaction

The thing about discipline is that it’s got this connotation of being just this tedious, repetitive, mundane activity that only bores, bureaucrats, and the anally retentive will get any measure of satisfaction from. Discipline is about restraint. It’s about lines that you’re not supposed to cross, or color outside of, or deviate from. It’s about rules that will, supposedly, hinder you or another in some way or another. And that’s not cool, man. Like, totally not cool.

We NEED Structure

But what a lot of people don’t realize (or maybe, what everybody doesn’t realize most of the time) is that discipline is what builds the framework around which we build everything. It’s the trellis that vines grow around. It’s the highway systems and railroads and trails that you follow as you backpack through Europe. It’s the pentatonic scale that your voice bounces along on as you attempt to hit those runs on your awesome rendition of “And I Am Telling You” or “Let’s Get It On”.

So when someone says that discipline is not their thing, and they’ll have nothing to do with it because it hinders them as an artist, or otherwise interferes with whatever inexplicable energy-based, mood-dependent activity or creative endeavor that they are pouring their passions out into, it might be good to remind them that hardly anybody starts off being great or a genius. You don’t just pick up a guitar, then feel a magical connection based on its feeling “just right” in the crook of your arm, and suddenly come out with this great, tear-jerking cover of “Let It Go”, your fingers plucking the strings as if they were red-hot, the chords ringing out like bells in the silent space formed around you by a spontaneously generated, awestruck audience that whip out their smartphones, taking videos of your feat and uploading it onto YouTube, where it gets like 999 million hits, and then turns you into a star overnight (whether that’s the time it takes before you become a star or the duration of your stardom, it’s anyone’s guess, but if it were mine, I’d guess the latter), and you are happily crowned as the miraculously musical prodigy of your generation.

Pleasure without Pain? Dream On

You know what the more statistically likely scenario is? It’s that you won’t get it right the first time. Or the second time. Or the third. It’s going to be an ego-crushing, humiliating, why-the-hell-am-I-doing-this marathon that will never seem to end, during which time you will continually question the sanity of going back and doing it over. On that score, the complainers probably get it right; there’s very little satisfaction to be gotten during that grind, that place and time when no matter what you do, it hardly seems to get any better.

But that’s the thing about satisfaction: more often than not, it’s delayed. Gratification that comes without effort is a myth, I think. Or, more likely, when you find yourself gratified with hardly any effort on your part, it’s because of the effort of other people who are carrying your hedonistic, McHappiness-seeking butt.

Behind every superb meal is a team of chefs, sous chefs, sommeliers, and other professionals who spent years learning about every nuance of the food that you’re about to consume, and you’ll probably have no more intelligent comment on it than “This is pretty good”.

Every great movie that tugs at your heart and fires up your soul is the product of thousands of man-hours spent by talented and creative workers (whose talent and creativity are honed, not inborn), more than nine-tenths of which will never be seen on the silver screen, left as nothing more than cellulose acetate ribbons on the cutting room floor, or dormant MOV/AVI/MP4/name-your-format files on some no-name videographer’s hard disk drive, never to be found or even sought out.

Every “miracle” drug (I put “miracle” in quotes because drugs don’t just happen) comes from millions of dollars and hours’ worth of research, quality control, regulation, administrative cost, failed experiments, and sleepless, coffee-fueled nights in the laboratory spent by people in lab coats who spent decades of their lives learning what they know, and earning the right to learn more about things that you’ll never even wonder about.

My point, I guess, about discipline, is that it’s a necessary cost. There are no miracles. There is no sorcery. There’s only input, work, and output.

What’s Your Discipline? Go and Find Out

So whoever you are, whatever you’re doing right now, I suggest you go out and find that discipline that will give you the most satisfaction. Find that one thing that you won’t mind mindlessly pouring weeks, months, and years into. Find the grind that will sharpen you rather than wear you down. Recognize how much it will take from you, and be prepared to pay for it.

If you’ve already found your discipline, kudos to you; you’re better off than I am, and probably 99% of the world’s population.

And what if you haven’t found yours, and probably never will or can?

Well… condolences, and welcome to the club.

Take things on, whether you need to or not

A few weeks ago, maybe a little more than a month, I lent my girlfriend a book (I have a lot of trouble keeping track of when I lent what or how much to whom, which may eventually take me to a life of vagrancy). She’s slightly upset that she hasn’t made too much progress on it. In fairness to her, it isn’t the usual literary fare she’s accustomed to; it’s dry, slow, and very ponderous to read. I pointed out to her that it’s perfectly all right to give up on the book, that neither I nor anyone else would think any less of her if she were to stop doing something she does not enjoy.

“I have to read it,” she says. “I’ve never been unable to finish a book I started.”

It’s gotten to the point that she has sworn not to buy The Power of Six, a book she actually is looking forward to reading, until she has gotten through the ordeal of reading the one I lent her. Initially, I thought that there was no sense to her “self-flagellation,” as I called it at one point. But then, I started to think: what’s so wrong about daring yourself to do something? What’s so odd about setting a goal and sticking to it until you’ve seen it through?

It’s been a while since I felt that feeling; hearing the odd voices that sing out to me from books that I haven’t read, math problems that I haven’t solved, songs that I haven’t tried singing, and so on. Once upon a time, I was in high school, and I would consider every difficult piece of text I came across as a personal challenge. “This is difficult today, but if I do it often enough, it will become easy.”

One of the books I remember daring myself to read during that time was The Dancing Wu Li Masters, by Gary Zukav. It was a unique book in our school library because it incorporated teachings of Buddhism into a discussion of physics. The idea of a nexus between spirituality and science was so appealing at the time. A decade later, on a whim, I look for an online copy of the book. In the first chapter, there’s a passage that seems salient to my thought for this post:

When I tell my friends that I study physics, they move their heads from side to side, they shake their hands at the wrist, and they whistle, ‘Whew! That’s difficult.’ This universal reaction to the word ‘physics’ is a wall that stands between what physicists do and what most people think they do. There is usually a big difference between the two…

Generally speaking, we have given up trying to understand what physicists (and biologists, etc.) really do. In this we do ourselves a disservice. These people are engaged in extremely interesting adventures that are not that difficult to understand. True, how they do what they do sometimes entails a technical explanation which, if you are not an expert, can produce an involuntary deep sleep. What physicists do, however, is actually quite simple. They wonder what the universe is really made of, how it works, what we are doing in it, and where it is going, if it is going anyplace at all. In short, they do the same things that we do on starry nights when we look up at the vastness of the universe and feel overwhelmed by it and a part of it at the same time. That is what physicists really do, and the clever rascals get paid for doing it.

How many times have we given up on something, thinking that it’s beyond what we can ever understand? Sure, some elements of language seem difficult, and simply pronouncing some words and memorizing some formulas appear to necessitate the possession and use of an abnormally large cerebrum. But really, how many people dismiss their own abilities offhand, thinking that somewhere, someone more qualified than they are and ever will be already knows something, and they can therefore rely on that someone to know? What if we all were thinking that exact same thought, and one day, we realize that all along, everyone thought everyone else already knew, and, in a colossally tragic yet comic case of miscommunication, it turned out that nobody bothered knowing?

Startlingly, as I log on to wordpress to write this post, one of the freshly pressed blog entries concerns a teacher’s distress over how her students give up on a task without even trying very hard. The post itself is here, and if one has the time, I think one would do himself or herself a great service by reading it.

So here I sit, ready to conclude the post, save the draft, shut down the computer and go to sleep. I’ll need adequate rest if I want to take on any challenges for tomorrow.