Opportunity Knocks

Determined to dig my way out of the ditches, I had been keeping my eyes open for other career opportunities. I mean, I was now 19, I had a solid nine months of real-world experience, I figured I was definitely ready for the jump to a big-time gig. (Impatient? Unrealistic? Not me…) 🙂

In a bit of fortuitous timing, this guy named Dennis was knocking on doors in my neighborhood telling people about this new-fangled thing called cable TV. Dennis was a late 20-something guy from Michigan, who had traveled around the country selling cable. And get this, he got paid for talking to people. If there was one (only?) 🙂 thing I excelled at in school, it was talking to people. And now I could get paid for it? Grab some crayons and color me intrigued.

Dennis spent a grand total of about three minutes to get us all signed up. Easy Peasy, especially compared to digging ditches. I asked him how I could catch a ride on this gravy train. He said he would have someone come by, then he took our money and was on his way.

The next day, a sales manager with the cable company, this young lady named Carol, stopped by. She referenced my convo with Dennis and talked to me a little about the job. After we chatted, she said she would set up an interview with her boss. I figured I was as good as hired. I mean, I was already undefeated in the interview department (albeit the small sample size of one).

I don’t recall much about the interview (hmmm, that’s twice now, I might need to work on that), but I must have killed it because I got the job. This job search thing seemed so easy.

Come to find out there were some issues. I was somewhat surprised when I found out the starting salary was – get this – zero. Hmm. Something about ‘commission only’ (I guess he referenced it in the interview, I don’t recall – gotta work on that).

Also, for some reason, they said wearing my construction boots was no go, and wearing my hightops was frowned upon. Which meant I was going to have to buy some decent shoes. On that salary? Hmm.

But the big issue, which I later found out almost kept me from getting hired at all, was my hair. Remember, this was the early 80’s and I was seriously channeling some Sammy Hagar. Welp, it seems as though I’m going to need to (gulp) get a haircut.

After resolving these issues, I’m geared up and ready to hit the ground running, or actually walking… slowly… door… to… door. It seems that my job is to basically show up – completely unannounced – at someone’s door, and ask them if I, as a random stranger, can come in to their house. What could go wrong?

I mean, could you even imagine performing that job in today’s world? But it was a different time, and crazy enough, people let me in – I’m thinking it must have been the new shoes and the haircut. 🙂

And even better, I seemed to be pretty decent at this talking to people thing. Go figure. After a few up-and-down weeks, I was starting to get the hang of it. Then all hell broke loose.

What happened? Well, I found out they tracked sales and gave awards to the top performers. You might recall that I have admitted to having a somewhat unhealthy competitive streak. They keep score? Declare winners? Hand out awards? (Not talking about those BS participation trophies). Then count me in!

They awarded a “Sales Champion” … had a nice ring to it. So I set my sights on winning this contest. Simple enough. All I had to do was outperform 18 other reps, all of whom were older, had more life/career experience, and had been in this job longer than me. Challenge. Accepted.

With an eye on the prize, not to mention a paycheck determined by performance, I was off to the, uh, doors. I was young, energetic, and just naive enough to think I could do this. I also now had a girlfriend, and, wow, they can be expensive, so I needed to get selling. (Oh, hi Melanie). 🙂

For some folks, there is a huge endorphin rush in making a new personal connection. For others, they like providing a service. And, of course, most folks love getting paid. This job combined all three! Enjoy my new job much? Guilty, your honor. 🙂

Add the opportunity to beat 18 other guys, many of whom had chuckled at the mere thought of the skinny, long-haired, 19-year-old, ditch digger dude being even remotely successful at the job, and, well… Bring. It. On.

Thus started a streak. Over the next 13 months, I won that damn award ten (10!) times. (I know, such a slacker, I took a vacation one month, not sure my excuse for the other two, sorry). 🙂 The thing that finally derailed the streak was a promotion (and corresponding pay cut).

But I had made my point, if you were willing to work harder than everyone else and you maintained a positive attitude, great things could happen – even if you were a fresh-faced, 19-year-old who was just finding his way in the business world.

Many years later, after I had moved on to larger corporate and entrepreneurial ventures, I heard they were going to sell the local Cox Cable system. I came back into town to meet with the General Manager with a single request. After basically growing up with this system, as one of the relatively early employees, I wanted one thing – those plaques that bore my name.

Those hard-earned mementos from a day long past would thereafter always be displayed in a place of prominence in every subsequent office I had. They served as a reminder of when I started. Of what it took to be successful. Of how far I had come.

This may sound surprising, but in a strange way these plaques, emblazoned with my name as a consistent winner, would over the years also serve to help keep me humble. (Yes, me, humble… quit laughing). 🙂 Looking at them allowed me to reflect back on the early days; how hard I had to work, the struggle to get ahead, the battle to overcome the odds, and how I was never guaranteed success. It also reminded me that if I didn’t maintain that effort, how quickly it could all end.

Today, as I find myself at the end of my professional journey, I look at these plaques with great pride, as they represent the initial efforts that ultimately launched a meaningful career, where I tried to not only be good, but do good.

I may never again win any sales contests. I may never again be able to walk up and knock on someone’s door. But I will remain convinced that a genuine desire to succeed, coupled with determination and work ethic, and supported with an unwavering commitment to a positive attitude, will allow you to soar to heights that you previously could have never imagined – regardless of your age, your background, or your experience.

Now, even as I struggle with the effects of a terminal motor neuron disease like ALS, which humbles all that it afflicts and that no one has ever beaten, I am able to look back on my successes. I am able to recall those characteristics which carried me through the challenges of my career, and I can draw upon these same traits to help me navigate the fear and uncertainty of my ALS journey.

Because I truly believe, despite the fate that awaits me, I will someday be a Champion again.

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