A significant portion of my days are spent meeting and speaking with people I don’t know. It’s intense work that I put a lot of effort into but the good news is that it’s something that has come naturally to me. My approach to meeting new people is to have and convey a sincere interest in the immediate moment and only later try to think through the strategic prospects of the relationship. My hope is that this approach helps me avoid becoming someone who thinks of other people solely in terms of business prospects.
As I said, it’s hard work that has felt reasonably natural and it occurs to me that a couple experiences I had prepared me for this work.
Drawing in the Park:
In the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college I took two classes at NYU. One was linear algebra, which was part of my effort to knock out a couple of engineering credits so I could take some other classes. The other was charcoal drawing, which was part of my effort to take some classes other than engineering ones. It was good exercise for both parts of my brain and a very fun summer, generally.
One of the assignments in the drawing class was to draw the profiles of 15 different people. The couple of guys I was rooming with got me part of the way there but I needed more faces. So, I headed to Washington Square Park, roamed the benches and asked strangers if I could draw them. Talking to strangers is scary, asking them if they’d be willing to sit still and be drawn is scarier and then having to show them the sketch is the scariest. But I did it and survived and learned that almost everyone likes having someone else’s undivided attention for a few minutes and the worst thing that can happen is they say no.
Selling at the Flea Market:
I started a designer paper goods company while I was practicing and ran it at night and on the weekends. The nights were usually dedicated to fulfilling orders and the weekends were often spent at the Brooklyn Flea, where I had a booth. The first four hours of the very first day at the Flea were a disaster: It was July, it was hot and I stood in the shade beneath the tent behind the display waiting for customers. And I didn’t sell a thing.
As I stood there watching people streaming by I realized an important thing: There’s a reason companies have sales departments. Which is to say, products don’t sell themselves. So that day I became a salesmen. I came out from under the shade and started pitching. Over time, I developed different ways to engage would be customers as they strolled by, created variations and subvariations of the pitch and, eventually and amazingly, managed to sell some stuff. Standing outside for eight hours trying to pitch your own product to an indifferent public was a transformative experience. It toughened me up and forced me to develop skills that I never thought I’d need including how to engage naturally even when you have an obvious ulterior motive and, most importantly, how to close a deal.
So, now I’m out there. Meeting strangers. Pitching myself. Trying to close some deals.