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  • Every summer I wait for the knock on my front door from a heat-flushed college student carrying a heavy canvas bag. The knock can come in the morning, afternoon or evening, in late June, mid-July, even early August. Upon opening the door, I’ll be greeted by a tall, blonde co-ed or a short unassuming “he.” Either way, he or she will disarm me with their all-American smile and greet me by name.

    “Hi Mrs. Boylan? My name is _____, and I was just down the street talking to Mrs. ____. She mentioned that her kids love to play with your, uh, three daughters, is it?”

    It's the canvas bag that gives them away. They have clipboards too, but everyone carries clipboards: PIRG, “Save the Bay” representatives, and inner city kids hawking magazines. Only they have the heavy canvas bags. Most carry it over their shoulder, giving them a slightly beleaguered and lopsided appearance. Occasionally it rests aside their feet like a loyal pet.

    When they arrive, I answer the door as though I’ve been expecting them all day. I make comfortable eye contact, and appear unfazed that they already know the names and ages of my children. Then, just when they inhale to announce their real mission, I cut them off.

    “Let me guess - Southwestern, right?” I say. "Come on in!”

    I lead them into the kitchen and start offering them food, drink, and whatever else I have on hand. Only after they are sufficiently skeptical of my hospitality do I confess. Twenty years ago, I tell them, I too sold books door to door for the Southwestern Company, the oldest direct selling company in the United States. Well, for two whole weeks anyway.

    ***

    It was 1991, the summer after my freshman year of college. I was promised a cross-country adventure and an average monthly gross profit estimates of $2K. Compared to my previous summer job, slinging yogurt at TCBY for minimum wage, it was a no-brainer.

    The first thing I learned is that knocking on doors is a lot harder than it looks. I was met by barking dogs, tight-lipped ladies whose children had flown the coop, and many, many people who simply refused to answer the door. One such house had over-grown weeds and thorny rose bushes in front. It didn’t look promising, but I could hear the voice of my student Sales Manager in my head: 75 knocks = 31 demos = 1.5 sales a day = $2K/month! And so I knocked. And then knocked again, but this time turning sideways (apparently a profile is far less intimidating through a peephole). And finally a third knock for good measure. Finally, I heard a small voice from behind the door pleading with me, “Please! Please go away.” I peered through the thick security glass window at an old woman who clearly didn’t feel comfortable with strangers knocking on her door. Finally, someone who shared my own doubts.

    ***

    Within days, I seriously regretted my choice of summer jobs. I worked from 8:30 in the morning to 8:30 in the evening. I studied maps of Petaluma, a rural town 40 miles north of San Francisco, looking for ripe neighborhoods. I knocked on doors, faced rejection, and lost what little will I had to begin with.

    I started taking short breaks. Then longer breaks. Picnic tables beckoned, shady trees welcomed me. By the end of the first week, I was spending entire afternoons at K-Mart eating bags of chips and reading glossy magazines in the cafeteria. Until the day when I was approached by an older gentleman.

    “Hello Miss. I wondered if you saw the sign over there?’”

    I followed the direction of his gaze, and saw a hard plastic sign imprinted with the words, “No Loitering.” My heart sank as I realized that he was a plain clothes police officer, and I was his target. I stammered, said I had been enjoying a snack but must have lost track of time. I would be sure to leave soon, I told him.

    “You don’t look like you’re from around here. Where do you live?”

    I was living with a host family at the time, a Catholic family with 12 kids. I dropped their name, figuring they must be local celebrities, but couldn't remember the name of their street. It didn't matter. He didn't believe me.

    “I think it’s time for you to go.”

    I walked out, my track record weighing on me more than the bag of books on my back: one scared old lady, one mistaken identity as a run-away, and zero units sold.

    ***

    It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in my wares, ready-reference educational books, or that I didn’t want to work hard. During training, I was the first to memorize the sale’s script. But play-acting was not the same as selling, and I didn’t feel comfortable in the role. The harder my District Sales Manager pushed, the more resolved I became that I was in the wrong place. My feelings didn't change even after selling my first unit.

    It was a Monday, the day after our first weekly Sunday get-together hosted by my Sales Manager. Hearing others’ stories of success, rejection, and everything in between made me resolve to try harder. So when I was invited inside to perform a demo for a mom and her nine-year old son with Downs Syndrome that day, I gave it my all.

    They told me that they had tried a number of things that hadn’t helped, and were ready to something new to try. They thought my books might be just the thing. I hoped they were right because as I walked away from their house that day with a check for $157 made out in my name, I felt the burden of their hope weighing on my shoulders.

    Two days later, hanging out at my new hide-out, a laundromat, something occurred to me. Maybe it wasn’t the fear of rejection pushing me towards the shady trees, laundromats and K-Marts. Maybe it was the lack of personal satisfaction I derived from the art of selling. After all, it wasn’t any more rewarding to sell one, as it had been disappointing not to.

    Just as the boy’s mother knew she was ready to try something new, I had to face my own fork in the road. For me, this mean facing failure. Never before had I quit a job, but selling was not my gig and no amount of doorbells was going to change that.

    ***

    I flew home the following weekend, $262 dollars in the red, and spent the rest of the summer working as a office temp.

    I didn't make as much money as I had hoped, but it was enough. And even though I myself couldn't sell books door to door, I still root for anyone who can. So when a Southwestern student dealer knocks on my door, I invite them in, feed them, and let them perform their demo. Maybe they'll make it the whole summer, maybe they won't. Either way, they will take home lessons that will last a lifetime. Like me. I realized that it's not failure that defines you, it's what you learn from it. And trust me, I've learned lots of new things since then!
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