Everyone has to learn to sell, even New York Times bestselling authors like Elizabeth Gilbert. In fact, her sales skills were a big part of what made her such a success. I read Eat Pray Love when I was getting ready to write Ahead of the Curve, my book about Harvard Business School and trying to figure out how to write a memoir. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Gilbert was wonderful company all the way through her strange journey – and I subsequently read her earlier book The Last American Man, about Eustace Conway, which is flat-out great.
She was profiled in the NYTimes magazine last week by Steve Almond, and the piece started with a story about selling:
When Elizabeth Gilbert was in fourth grade, her teacher, Ms. Sandie Carpenter, announced a fund-raiser. Students were asked to sell grinders — New Englandese for “sub sandwiches” — to pay for a class trip. There was never any question whether Gilbert would participate. Still, door-to-door sales of a perishable foodstuff can prove intimidating, even to a zealous 9-year-old.
So her mother, Carole, initiated a training program. She made Gilbert go outside and close the front door. Gilbert then had to knock, introduce herself and explain what she was selling and why. “Our family’s going on vacation next week,” Carole might announce. “What if we want the grinders two weeks from now?” To which Gilbert would generally respond, “I don’t know!” and start crying. “Back it up,” her mother would say. “Try it again. Get it right, kid.” And close the door.
They did this, Gilbert recalls, for what felt like a whole afternoon.
A decade and a half later, Gilbert took an elevator up to the offices of Spin magazine to ask for a job. Her only connection at the magazine was having met the publisher, Bob Guccione Jr., at a party once. She had no experience as a journalist — her degree from N.Y.U. was in international relations — and enough good sense to be terrified. The doors to the elevator opened. Gilbert took a deep breath. Come on, she told herself. You’re Carole Gilbert’s daughter. Go do this!
The receptionist was, to put it gently, unmoved by her appeal. A concerned secretary appeared, then a personal assistant. Gilbert politely refused to budge. Guccione eventually agreed to see her but had no recollection of having met her. Look, he said finally, my assistant is going out of town for three days. You can do his job. At the end of this stint, Guccione pulled out his wallet, handed Gilbert 300 bucks and wished her good luck.
Some months later, Gilbert placed her first short story in Esquire, which published it with the subtitle “the debut of an American writer.” She sent the story to Guccione with a note that read, “I told you I was a writer!” He called and offered her an assignment on the spot.
The lesson was obvious. Life was just a big grinder sale. Your job was to knock on the door and not to leave until your ambitions were met.
I recently spoke to an audience of interior decorators in Naples, Florida about selling. They’re not selling books or articles, or grinders, but visions of what people’s homes can look like. Many had chosen their profession because they loved the products and the work of designing, but once in it found it was a business and they had to sell. Finding a way to do that, to treat selling as the means to turning your passions into a living, as Gilbert has done, is really the whole trick.