Monday, May 22, 2023

Bettering Ourselves

How can we make ourselves better people? Not better in terms of our health, or our physical or mental powers, but better morally?

Aristotle argued that friendships (particularly disinterested friendships—friendships in which we are not looking to gain anything for ourselves) constitute one path through which we may become more virtuous. Others have suggested that prayer and meditation can and do make us more virtuous. In the nineteenth century proponents of certain strands of Christianity argued that cultivating our physical health helps us to cultivate virtue as well. A number of twentieth- and twenty-first century psychologists and literacy advocates have argued that reading prose fiction tends to make us more empathetic.

In a 1942 article that has remains influential in some quarters, Simone Weil asserts that cultivating attentiveness—the sort of attentiveness that, in her view, comes from academic study undertaken with the proper attitude (“le bon usage des études scolaires”)—is an important way of cultivating virtue in ourselves. Weil was by the time she wrote the piece a fervent Christian, and her chief concern in advocating the cultivation of attentiveness is that humans do everything possible “to orient themselves towards God with the greatest possible degree of attentiveness of which the soul is capable” (“l'orientation vers Dieu de toute l'attention dont l'âme est capable”). But Weil argues as well that attentiveness tends to foster love for our neighbors as much as it does love towards God:
It's not only the love of God that has attentiveness as its substance. The love of one’s neighbor, which we know is the same love, is made of the same substance. … The capacity to pay attention to one who is suffering is a rare and difficult thing. … Almost all those who believe they have this capacity do not. Warmth of emotion, heart-felt impulsiveness, pity—these are insufficient.

[Ce n'est pas seulement l'amour de Dieu qui a pour substance l'attention. L'amour du prochain, dont nous savons que c'est le même amour, est fait de la même substance. … La capacité de faire attention à un malheureux est chose très rare, très difficile…. Presque tous ceux qui croient avoir cette capacité ne l'ont pas. La chaleur, l'élan du cœur, la pitié n'y suffisent pas.] (“Réflexions sur le bon usage des études scolaires en vue de l'amour de Dieu”)
Weil is surely right that much of the time we humans tend, even when we are expressing sympathy and warm feeling towards a fellow human being, not to truly pay attention to what they are feeling; too often we do not truly listen to what they say to us. And perhaps she is right that one way to cultivate this form of attentiveness is to cultivate attentiveness in academic study. But she does not make entirely clear through what mechanism a spirit of attentiveness to physics or geometry or grammar lessons (even a pure spirit of attentiveness that floats free of any self-oriented goals) might be readily transferrable to a spirit of attentiveness towards other people.

Are there other sorts of attentiveness that might just as plausibly—or more plausibly—possess the potential to add moral value to human life? Yes, is surely the short answer—and I would argue that some of them come from unexpected sources. More specifically, I’d argue that the pursuit of one type of work that has been reviled perhaps more than any other may offer surprising potential. I want to suggest that working in sales can help make us better people.

In the spring of 1975, when I was about to graduate with an English degree and was considering applying for jobs in book publishing, I had the good fortune to speak with two senior people in book publishing (Hugh Kane of Macmillan of Canada and Barney Sandwell of Burns and MacEachern). I had assumed—as countless English grads do—that the natural progression for someone like me would be into editorial. Both Kane and Sandwell suggested to me that the sales side was worth considering—that conversing with a variety of interesting people outside one’s company could be a good deal more interesting than poring over manuscripts all day, watching out for dangling modifiers and comma errors. They suggested too that the sales side could provide a broader and deeper understanding of the publishing business than could editorial (or Distribution, or Accounts, for that matter). They certainly did not suggest that a career in sales might have the potential to make someone a better human being. But I’m quite confident that it’s had that effect on me; that’s part of the reason why, even long after I started a new publishing company, I have continued to devote a certain amount of time to maintaining my own sales territory, and to knocking on the doors of the professors who I hope will assign our company’s books for their students.*

Discussions of sales and ethics have often focused on sleazy sales tactics—on the unethical practices that too many companies and sales representatives engage in. More than one wag has suggested that both “sales ethics” and “business ethics” are oxymoronic. If anything resembling “virtue ethics” or character formation enters the conversation, the typical assumption is that sales work tends inevitably to coarsen one’s character, encouraging one to become more competitive, more aggressive, more materialistic, and more self-interested—pumping up a variety of unattractive character traits, and doing damage to virtually all forms of higher mental activity. The image of sales as a soul-destroyer permeates twentieth-century American literature, from Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman to John Updike’s Rabbit books to David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. All are great works of literature, but all portray sales as a process of misleading or cheating one’s customers as one pursues exhausting but empty goals for oneself.** As Miller’s Biff Loman puts it,
… it's a measly manner of existence. … To devote your whole life to keeping stock, or making phone calls, or selling or buying. To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation…. And always to have to get ahead of the next fella. And still—that’s how you build a future.

No doubt a career in sales can have all these deleterious effects. But sales work can also affect a person’s character in ways that are almost diametrically opposed to these stereotypes—and that are almost entirely positive.

A great deal depends, of course, on what you are selling. It’s impossible to imagine that anyone’s character is going to be improved by trying to sell shoddy merchandise or dodgy mining stocks. If you’re selling something that you can truly be proud of, on the other hand, that’s one good reason to be proud of what you are doing in life.

Arguably even more depends, though, on the approach one takes to selling. When most people think of what’s involved in selling, they think of the sales representative talking rather than listening—spinning a line, using every possible power of persuasion. A better approach to selling many sorts of things—and certainly a better approach when it comes to human values—involves the sales representative doing more listening than talking. Asking questions rather than giving a spiel. And then truly listening to the answers. Being curious about what the person they are speaking to may say—and truly interested in what they do say.

If you’re not trying to sell someone something that they don’t really want, you’ll have a better chance of long-term success, purely in terms of sales. But you’ll also have a better chance of making yourself into a better person. Part of becoming a better person (and it’s a lifelong struggle for most of us) is to overcome our egos enough to be truly interested in and to truly care about other people. Not just our children and our parents and our close friends—about strangers as well. To care to some degree at least about any other human being. How can sales help us to develop those sorts of feelings? Crucially, it can help us to develop a habit of asking questions of other people—which in turn can help develop a habit of genuine curiosity about other people. And the more curious we are about other people, the more we are likely to care about them too.

If you work as a sales representative for a long time—going back to the same people, in the spring sales season, in the fall sales season, year after year—that sales season structure in itself offers a strong inducement to behave ethically. If sales is a one-time encounter, the economic incentives arguably work the other way; you may well do better if you cheat or mislead the customer. But not if you know you’re going to be coming back again and again in the future. In that case there’s a very strong incentive to “build a relationship,” as the saying goes. But it’s not just a saying. Inevitably, one develops a habit of being curious about what the people you are speaking with are thinking, about what they might think, about what they might need or want. One develops habits of being genuinely interested in the people you are interacting with. One develops habits of truly listening to what is being said to you—and making an effort to understand the situation of the person who is saying it. One develops a habit of genuinely trying to help that other person—not as a matter of making more sales revenue for the company one is with, but for its own sake. (It’s not uncommon for sales representatives to recommend to their customers products from another company when they can see that whatever they are offering that season is not a good fit—and I can attest that it’s a deeply satisfying feeling for the sales rep if such suggestions turn out to be helpful.) Inevitably too, such habits seep into the rest of life. One develops a habit of asking questions of one’s spouse or partner, of one’s relatives, of one’s friends. And I think one becomes more likely to be curious about the lives of strangers too—and more likely to care about them.

None of this is to suggest that working in sales has a unique ethical status. I imagine that for some people academic study may indeed have the capacity to build habits of attentiveness that can result in an increased tendency to care for others, much as Weil suggests. (So too, I'm sure, may a career on the editorial side of the publishing business, provided that it entails serious engagement with texts and ideas rather than merely with commas and dangling modifiers!) I’m sure that, for many, simply making a decision to help others in a practical way—to volunteer for a charity helping the poor or the homeless, for example—can result both in real benefit to those others and in building habits within oneself of being attentive and caring to others. And no doubt the habit of reading can, in some circumstances at least, increase one’s capacity for empathy—though it’s surely more likely to do so if one is reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (a novel offering a deeply sympathetic depiction of the life of a poor family), than it is if one is reading Thomas Dixon’s The Clansmen (a novel offering a deeply sympathetic treatment of the activities of the Ku Klux Klan). And I’m sure that building habits of disinterested friendship can help to make one a better person, just as Aristotle maintained. But a career in sales—so often denigrated as being at best a path merely to “bettering oneself” materially—also deserves consideration as a path to bettering oneself in ethical terms, and in bettering the lives of others.

Yes, sales at its worst can indeed be soul destroying. It’s persuading someone to buy something that they don’t really need and don’t even really want—telling them that color looks lovely on you! when in reality it looks hideous, or appealing to their worst instincts (What I hear from everyone who’s bought this car is that they can’t believe how many admiring looks they get). But sales at its best involves making people aware of products or services that will genuinely help them, that will make their work easier or their lives better and more enjoyable, that will genuinely offer better value, that will be better for the environment or better for the planet in myriad other ways. And by leading us to think of other people and their needs and wants, sales work can indeed help to make us better people. “Attention must be paid,” the famous line from Death of a Salesman, is a plea for caring about the life of Willy Loman, whose sales career has resulted in great damage to him and his family; “he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him.” But people who work in sales are not Willy Lomans; it’s worth paying attention too to the ways in which and the degree to which attentiveness and caring on the part of those engaged in sales very often contribute to much happier outcomes, and make a real contribution to making the world a better and more caring place.
*Next January I’ll turn 70; this coming fall will be my 88th and final sales season.

**It might also be observed that all are by male writers, and focus on male sales people. The ways in which sales has been gendered is not my subject here, but it’s a subject that deserves attention.

A selfie taken during my 87th sales season--this past February in New Orleans, outside Xavier University of Louisiana. For the past several years I've stayed when visiting New Orleans at Bed and Breakfast places in the Bywater neighborhood; there are no nearby car rental places, but there's a U-Haul that's both handy and reasonably priced (so long as one doesn't mind looking silly driving from university to university with "Only $19.95 a day" on your vehicle).

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