Students can improve by being more like salespeople

There’s a lot of information on this site about how to get into university. But it’s only responsible to also write about tips, tricks and tidbits that will help one prepare academically, mentally, spiritually and psychologically for the demands of university.

If you go looking for advice on how to prepare yourself for university, or how to be successful once you’re there, you’ll find no shortage of advice based on the premises that university is:

  • difficult (or, a favourite phrase that Joe and I have adopted from a sushi take-out menu, “raw and challenging”)
  • unlike anything you’ve experienced before
  • requiring intense concentration, dedication and work ethic

The truth is though, that this isn’t the universal first-year experience. Some kids enter university extremely well-prepared academically with not only adequate study skills but also with a healthy curiosity and a solid knowledge-base. Gifted students and/or home schoolers who have studied particular subjects in depth may even find themselves somewhat disappointed at the general nature of introductory courses. They may similarly find themselves more than a little disenchanted by the interest level of not only their fellow classmates but also of the professors who have been given the “baby” classes. There aren’t many books out there about how to cope when university isn’t challenging enough for you.

It would be erroneous to assume that the problems these students face in high school magically disappear once they cross the threshold of a university campus. For some, they do. For others, there can be a profound disappointment when they realize that university life holds fewer changes from high school than they had expected.

Personally, I can only recall one “challenging” course in my five years at Glendon. For me, challenging meant that I had to sit with a text book for hours on end trying to make sense of it. I can’t recall a course that had too much reading for me to be comfortable with (including a women’s literature course in a 4 week summer session that included novels, plays, poems, essays and short stories), nor did I ever have so many assignments that I found it difficult to manage or meet deadlines.

Fortunately for my academic career, though, I wasn’t generally resentful or disillusioned. I took advantage of the opportunity to get involved socially and politically on campus. I didn’t skip any classes, although I easily could have gotten away with it academically, until my last year when I was extremely involved in extra-curricular activities. Even though my 100 person first year Intro to Psychology course had dwindled to more like 40 people during lectures, I continued to attend faithfully. I continued to attend even though:

  • I did the lecture’s reading and made study notes before the lecture
  • the lectures were overviews straight from the textbook
  • the notes I had already made could have been the lecture

When people asked why, I told them that I liked the subject and I thought the repetition would be good for the learning process. It didn’t bother me that I had read it all before. In fact, it meant that instead of scrambling to take notes during the lecture, I could simply add annotations to the notes I already had and leave most of my brain free for listening. We like hearing the same stories over and over again, watching the same movies, listening to the same songs… I happened at the time to be fascinated by introductory psychology and I didn’t think this was any different. Besides, there might be something I’d miss if I didn’t go. There rarely was, but occasionally there were some gems to be had, like my professor slapping himself silly on the back of the head until he “saw stars” to demonstrate where the occipital lobe is, and how you can see things that aren’t really there when these neurons are adequately stimulated. (He proposed that this could explain “seeing ghosts” for example.) This I remember clearly 15 years later, and it wasn’t in the textbook.

It’s taken a while for this post to establish the link between university students and sales people, but here it finally is: little did I know that my tolerance for repetition in the hopes of finding just one new bit of information was an essential quality of successful salespeople. And as it turns out, being able to selectively tune in and tune out at will is just a handy self-improvement skill to have, whether you’re learning for credit, for professional advancement, or for interest.

Reg Braithwaite wrote about this on his website in response to people (computer programmers specifically) engaging in harsh criticism of each other’s ideas in an online discussion, but the point he makes has far greater implications than simply promoting tolerance. After reading his message, I think you’d be hard pressed not to look at education and training (especially the type that would normally make your eyes glaze over with boredom) in a new light.

The article is called What I’ve Learned From Sales, Part III: How to use a blunt instrument to sharpen your saw and isn’t entirely G-Rated, so I’m going to quote here more than I normally would of someone else’s post. Please don’t follow the link if a four-letter word is going to make you spit your morning coffee at the computer screen. 🙂 The observation and analysis is brilliant, and I hope he doesn’t mind that I share a few paragraphs in their entirety with you here so that I can share the wisdom:

In sales, there is a very high, observable, and measurable correlation between attending sales training seminars and sales volume. One explanation for this is that the kind of people who take time off of selling to sharpen their own saw are the kind of people to be top salespeople.

The other possibility is that there is something abut the seminars themselves that make salespeople better. I have asked salespeople about it, and generally I get a variation on the exact same answer: If I can learn just one thing that improves my sales skills, the seminar will pay for itself.

Think about that. They go to an all day seminar, where they will probably hear twenty, thirty, or forty tips. They will probably sit through tip after tip thinking “Yawn, I knew that, tell me something new.” Or they hear something and think: “That is the worst suggestion I’ve ever heard.” But then, suddenly, they hear something new, and they profit from it.

In sales, you are used to making call after call, facing rejection after rejection, but you keep dialing because”¦ the next one could be a winner. So the kind of person who can keep on dialing after rejection ought to be the kind of person who can sit through a seminar waiting to pounce on one new thing that can improve their income.

He goes on to point out that we non-salespeople often take a different approach to learning, or at the very least, others’ attempts to inform us. Here are some of the things we all do, to varying degrees and from time to time, instead of sticking it out waiting for that one idea that could be earth-shatteringly transformative:

  • Feel annoyed that we are “wasting our time” with things we “already know”
  • Hear one thing we disagree with, and as a result immediately discredit everything that person has to say
  • Attempt to correct or argue with someone else to convince them of the error of their ways
  • Make an overall judgment as to whether what we heard/read/saw as a whole was any good

Braithwaite recommends instead that computer programmers participate in online discussions with this mentality: most of what I hear won’t be new; a good portion of it I’ll completely disagree with; however, if I can find just one small thing that makes me a better programmer, the experience will have been worth it and I personally will profit from it.

I say, what a fantastic approach to learning! Think of what we open ourselves up to if we relax our natural tendencies for categorization and consistency and instead allow ourselves to learn from sources without embracing them in their entirety.

When we stop trying to evaluate our sources of information (books, websites, films, people) as “good” or “bad” we can turn the focus inwards on ourselves, and on how that information can be used for our own learning or self-improvement. This works equally well in a university lecture as it does in a training seminar, info session or online discussion.

This is a healthy attitude for all students, not just those wondering why they should attend a lecture to hear what they already know or those who feel their time is being wasted in class discussions with people stating the obvious. But, I think this idea can give real comfort to those who already feel “different” or “out of place” even in a university classroom. They don’t have to pass judgment on those around them; they simply recognize that good ideas can come at any place, at any time (even from bad ideas). And it’s not contradictory (or an embarrassment) to learn something from someone “not as smart” as they are, nor is it a betrayal of one’s principles to be enlightened by someone with a different religious, philosophical or political affiliation.

Did you know that direct mail campaigns (junk mail, envelopes filled with coupons etc.) are conducted with the knowledge that they have a 1% success rate in converting into purchases? Sales people understand that striking out comes with the territory. Ball players are considered star-caliber if they are successful at the plate a mere 30% of the time. Students, however, are indoctrinated with a much higher standard of success. The sooner they realize that “the real world” is all about the journey towards savouring the occasional sweet success, the easier it will be to relax the need for themselves and for others to conform to their expectations of perfection. And then, they just might learn something in places they never expected!

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