Sometimes finding out what makes you come alive starts with learning what makes you miserable.
It's refreshing to see someone who's good at what they do. Oddly, this occurred to me in a pizza parlor, as I watched a man tossing a huge, thin disc of dough into the air, spinning it, and catching it on his fists — meanwhile keeping it perfectly shaped and intact. It must take lots of practice! I don't know if he adored his job, but I watched with admiration. There is a similar yet greater awe when I watch an articulate public speaker, or a counselor who always seems to get to the heart of the matter, or my husband the photographer, who captures beauty in everyday life. I am constantly amazed by the excellence of their work.
Alas, there was nothing amazing about my performance during my latest adventure ... in the world of sales.
To make a long story short, I am a grade-A introvert. In college, I loved essay exams. I had paltry social skills, although I was blessed with several close friends who loved me anyhow. I looked with envy at my peers who were so at ease with one another.
In the first five years after college, I held five jobs — some part-time, some overlapping — and my favorites involved writing and editing. I also did well at organizing, typing, filing, and scheduling. The less I had to deal with people, the better.
So why did I ever get into sales? I'd have to say I was "under the influence" — of stress and fear. My husband and I were expecting a baby and buying a house. Looking at my freelancer husband's unpredictable income and not wanting to send my child to daycare, I decided that I could be a realtor. I loved looking at houses, and I thought, "It's not really sales; I will be helping people find something they want — no pressure!" I envisioned part-time work, on a schedule that could be arranged around my family. I knew I was no extrovert, but I thought I could fake it, or overcome it. Part of me still wanted to prove that I could be like those gregarious people I had envied in college.
I soon found that there was indeed "sales" work in real estate. For one thing, I had to sell myself every time I met a potential client. Why should they list their house with me, versus hundreds of other agents in town? I had to convince, persuade and prove — all on the spot.
And it didn't stop there. There is negotiation at every point in a real estate transaction, whether you represent a buyer or seller. The typical buyers — quite naturally — want the perfect house for the lowest price, and the typical sellers — also naturally — think their house is just fine, and want top dollar for it. An agent needs to coax, reassure and defend. I constantly felt stuck in the middle, trying to talk people into things they didn't want.
It's hard enough for an introvert to talk to people who are friendly. Buying or selling a home can be intensely stressful, and I saw the worst of certain clients. With my limited social experience, I pretty much stink at dealing with agitated strangers. If I had to tell a client something undesirable, such as "the buyers who have seen your house report that it is dark, smelly and priced too high," I would do almost anything to avoid making the call. My poor husband never knew when he would come home and find the furniture re-arranged — A clear sign that real estate was not a good fit for reclusive me.
If you have ever been uncomfortable in your professional skin, you are not alone. Just look around — people change careers all the time hoping to step into something that suits them better. There is a reason it's refreshing to see someone who's wonderful at what they do: it's because you don't see it every day. It takes time to discern and develop your unique set of gifts.
But it's possible. Here are a few words of encouragement to others on the bumpy part of the road to excellence.
Don't be afraid to admit your weaknesses, but don't dwell on them. The Apostle Paul experienced first-hand how God is glorified through our weaknesses — and it's not because He transforms all our weaknesses into strengths. To the contrary, God often uses the humbling reality of our weaknesses to put an end to our misplaced pride and self-sufficiency. It's possible to improve in an area where you fall short — but why not spend your time honing the skills that come naturally. Simply acknowledging my introverted nature could have spared me — and my clients — lots of heartache and frustration.
"Don't ask what the world needs." This quote from Howard Thurman changed my life. It continues, "Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." Sometimes you have to work an okay job for a season to pay the bills — but make time in your schedule to do what you know you were made to do, even on a volunteer basis. It's the only way to live.
"You cannot outrun God." So said a wise college friend. It was not in the context of running away from God; rather, he was addressing my fear that I would go somewhere God didn't want me, and somehow lose His presence. Years later, I had a major decision before me: live humbly at a volunteer ministry for a year, or go to a potentially prestigious internship in the nation's capital — two very different scenarios! For days, I prayed and tried to listen for God's voice, hoping to get a telegram from God, or at least have a sense of peace about The One Place God wanted me to go. What I finally got was an affirmation that, since I was His child, God would be with me wherever I went. The outcomes would be very different, and each option lead down a different path — but I wasn't going to "outrun" God.
Listen to those who know you best and care most. You may have many different people offering opinions about "what you should do." A person who has something to gain by nudging you in a certain direction may not be the best voice to heed. Consider motives when receiving advice.
I stayed in real estate for another several months at the urging of my boss. I don't know why he pushed me onward; perhaps he didn't understand what it means to be an introvert. He is the kind of person who rises to a challenge and loves to talk and argue. He admonished me to always "make the client feel as if you are on their side" (even if you think they are being unreasonable) and "don't confuse them with details that aren't necessary." When I tried to employ his tactics I felt insincere and manipulative.
(A word to readers who work in sales: I know there are people who manage to be servants and still do well as salespeople. It's a true gift to be able to maintain kindness and humility while competing with a gazillion other salespeople and meeting quotas. It's just not my gift!)
My adventure in real estate is officially over. When I think of those days, sometimes I still wince. But then I smile and thank God. He has set me free! There is nothing more draining than trying to do something you were not created to do! Trying to sell real estate made me feel tired, bored and useless. I rejoice because I am free to be a full-time mother and a freelance writer, and I feel alive.
Copyright 2005 Laurel Robinson. All rights reserved.