The author at 13

Pearl at 13

When I was 13, I invited my grandparents to take me on a trip to Hawaii, which they graciously accepted. We spent a little time in Honolulu and a bit more in Kauai and despite the weirdness of traveling with two old people I barely knew and was reasonably apprehensive of, I loved being on the beach and in the sweet warm air and eating pineapple pancakes.

In Honolulu, I spent a lot of time psyching myself up to approach one of the dozens of kiosks that promised a pearl in every oyster. I was shy, and the idea of having a conversation with a salesperson made me feel sick, but since I’d never had a pearl of my own, I knew I had to move forward.

My first effort yielded a lovely goldenish pearl, a beauty it was hard to believe came from such an ugly oyster. What I really wanted to do was pay my $8.95 and walk away with the jewel; what the salesperson wanted was to increase the amount of money I spent by selling me a jewelry setting, and though that was the last thing I wanted, I had no idea how to say no.

I ended up with a gold basket that held the pearl lightly, so it rolled around inside. It was lovely — except for the pearl, since I had at first tried it out with a setting that required a hole drilled into it, so there was this pinpoint of greyish drill mark that couldn’t be hidden. Unless I didn’t wear the necklace, which I didn’t, because I didn’t really want it and it failed to meet my fantasy of a free pearl I could take out and look at whenever I chose.

So I psyched myself up all over again and went back another day. I felt able, at last, to say in words what I wanted, but the salesperson’s will was stronger, and once again, instead of a loose pearl (black, rare, flawed yet mine), I ended up with a ring in the cheapest setting I could find. I never wore that ring, and like the necklace, I have no idea where it is today.

This happened 35 years ago, yet I can easily conjure the discomfort and the shame of trying to get what I wanted and being talked out of it. The intense awkwardness of trying to walk away and being held in place by practiced patter designed to ensnare me and shake out my money. It’s very likely that I cried afterward.

Of course, not all of sales is about ensnaring and shaking down and making little girls cry, but a lot of it is. I’ve grown to accept and enjoy and value the process of marketing, especially in the arts, an area where there is a philosophically expressed resistance to profit. One is expected in the arts (as in teaching, my former field) to do the work simply for the love of it while looking down on those who make lots of money. THEY are selling their souls in order to succeed, whereas ARTISTS and TEACHERS are working from and for the heart. And not selling.

Yet for me, the difference between expressing clearly to the right audience the value of what I do (marketing) is separate from asking people to make a decision about paying for it (sales). Some of this separation clearly comes from my early experience, and from the experience of slimy high-pressure tactics anywhere else, including romantic relationships, where arguments only work temporarily.

I’ve spent more money than I’m happy with in the past couple of years on products and services that I only bought because of sales tactics. Yes, they addressed needs of mine, and yes, I’m sure they are useful to others. However, any time I made a decision based on fear, scarcity, loss, or time pressure, I’ve regretted it.

The flip side is that any time I’ve asked for a refund and received it, I’ve relaxed and admired the business owner who, instead of falling back on “this is our policy” understood that keeping my money when I didn’t want their stuff would only lead to regret and bad feelings. This has influenced my own approach to guaranteeing satisfaction for my own work.

Daniel Pink wrote a book called To Sell Is Human, the overall point being that all communication is about persuasion, an idea encapsulated in the concession, “I’ll buy that.” Like so many humanistic thinkers and writers about business, his approach has helped me concede that in order to do my own work, I have to sell it to others.

Ultimately, I want my clients to walk away thinking “I’m glad I paid for Pearl’s work” rather than “I’m sorry I paid for those pearl settings.”