The Most Important Question In The Universe

I am a big believer in the value of thinking deeply about your career. I graduated from university in 2011 having spent literally no time at all thinking about what I should do next, and spent the next 6 months waiting tables at a five star hotel. When my perfect job didn’t fall into my lap after that point, I figured maybe there was something I could be doing more proactively.

So, I followed the only career advice that everyone knows is true: follow your passion. I got a job working for the English Lacrosse Association. A life spent teaching, talking and playing lacrosse all day was my idea of paradise so I promptly moved to London and took up my new job spreading the game in the South East of England.

Unfortunately, as everyone really knows deep down, “Follow Your Passion” is truly horrible career advice. As Cal Newport has persuasively argued in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, passion is something that comes as a consequence of becoming really good at what you do. You need to develop skills that are ‘rare and valuable’. As you improve your skills, you will become so good that you will have more ability to control important things like where you work, who you work for and how much you earn. Most importantly though, people become passionate about things they are really good at.

Exceptions to the rule are easy to find, certainly. No doubt David Beckham was passionate about football before he was a super star, but we can’t base our decisions on the lives of outliers alone.

So, is that the answer? Become really really good at something? Almost, but not totally.

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink outlines the research that has shown that the ingredients for a truly fulfilling career are: Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose. (And no, passion is not a prerequisite).

Mastery means that people are motivated by improving themselves and mastering a skill - further support for the value of developing a rare and valuable skill set as proposed by Cal Newport. In addition, the more you become so good that you can’t be ignored, the more autonomy you will receive. That could be because you receive promotions and so become the boss, or because you strike out on your own with your expert skill set ready to support you.

However, what’s not covered is most certainly the most important one: Purpose.

So how do you find purpose?

The short, blog sized, answer is this: to have a purpose is to solve an important problem. If you don’t already know what your purpose is, then you should pick a problem to solve. Delivering clean water to subsaharan Africa, establishing gender equality in the UK or protecting the world from the potential threat of an AI superintelligence that destroys mankind. All of these are good examples of a purpose problem.

For best results, the problem you pick should be big, it should be solvable in principle, and, ideally, it should be one that isn’t being addressed sufficiently by other people and organisations already.

Once you have picked a problem, you must decide how you will solve it. The good thing about really big problems is that there are lots of things you can do to have an impact. So, you could become a computer programmer, a writer or a great entrepreneur. Sure, if you want to cure cancer then a medical degree might be a requirement to have a direct impact, but it’s certainly not the only way to contribute. In addition, by identifying your purpose, you’ll have a better way of working out which skills you next need to develop or improve next.

Your purpose can change (despite what people say) because you can choose to work on a new problem. Obviously your chances of making progress to solving the problem are likely to be slim if you change direction every six months. But also, we shouldn't pretend that people don't change and grow over time. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of good enough. It only matters that you choose an important problem and get to work, not that you are certain it is exactly the right one for you. Most likely when you get stuck in, and your rare and valuable skills come into play, you will identify specific parts of the problem which seem to have been perfectly designed for you.

The upshot of all this is that, contrary to popular belief, the first step to a fulfilling career is not answering the question "What are you passionate about?" That question gets the whole thing back to front and upside down. Don't worry about passion because the passion will come later. The most important question in the universe for any person to answer is this: What big, important problem will you solve?

Too Long; Didn't Read - A Summary

A fulfilling career requires three elements: Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose. To have mastery and autonomy you must focus on developing a set of expert skills that are rare and valuable. Which skills should you choose to master? The ones that will give you the best chance of fulfilling your purpose. And if you don’t already know what your purpose is, then you must pick a big, important, but solvable problem.

Pick the problem, identify the skills, become a master, receive autonomy. And live happily ever after.

That is why the most important question in the universe is this:

What big, important problem will you solve?

The New ABCs of Selling

For a lot of people, when you say the word 'sales' they think of sleazy men with greasy hair trying to trick you into losing your money. The fact is that selling in the 21st Century is a completely different kettle of fish.

In 'To sell is human' by Daniel Pink, he makes a compelling case for a new frame of mind: Everyone does sales. It's an entirely human activity and one that doesn't deserve the bad reputation it has. To get started on the path being a great salesperson, first you need to redefine the ABCs of selling. Here's how to do it.

Coffee's for closer

If you haven't seen the film 'Glengarry Glen Ross' you should stop reading right now and go watch it. (Seriously, it's on Netflix. It's amazing.) If you have seen it, you'll recognise this scene in which Alec Baldwin motivates a sales team in a ball-busting, angry sort of way:


This is what many people think of when they hear the term 'salesman'. Some great quotes from Baldwin that make you hope never to cross paths with someone like him:

  • "First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado ... Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is your fired. You get the picture?"
  • "Only one thing counts in this life! Get them to sign on the line that is dotted!"
  • "They're sitting out there waiting to give you their money! Are you gonna take it?"
  • "Nice guy? I don't give a shit. Good father? Fuck you, go home and play with your kids."

As Alec Baldwin suggests in the clip above, in traditional sales, 'ABC' stands for 'Always Be Closing'. It's a call to action for pushy salesmen to do whatever it takes (and say whatever they can think of) to get you to sign the dotted line as quickly as possible.

The good news is that although there are undoubtedly still Alec Baldwin type figures in the real world, they are a dying breed. And it's not the way to be a great sales person today.

The New ABCs

The first step towards being a great sales person is to redefine your understanding of the ABCs. Daniel Pink, in his great book 'To Sell is Human' suggests these new definitions:

A is for Attunement

Attunement is the ability to put yourself in the other person's shoes, or get on their wavelength. To be successful in sales, you don't bulldoze through every conversation as if every person is exactly the same. People are very complex and if you attempt to brow beat your prospective customer into handing over their cash you'll only drive them away.

Try to see things from the perspective of your customer and ask yourself, 'what pains and problems they are feeling?'. Have an honest conversation in which you seek to learn more about your customer's life and identify a way in which your product or service can solve a problem for them.

Many people assume that extraverts make the best salesmen i.e. those who are outgoing, assertive and lively in social situations. On the traditional view of salesmen that makes sense - if you enjoy being the life and soul of a conversation and taking the lead in social situations then you'd have no problem talking someone's ear off until they pay you. However, Pink argues that rather than aiming to be an extravert, you should aim to be an ambivert.

An ambivert is someone who is equal part introverted and extraverted. In order to be a great salesman you must not be so extraverted that you overwhelm the other person and steamroll their ability to talk, or make them feel like they're being pushed around. But equally, you must not be so introverted that you're unable to open the conversation in the first place and close the deal when the time is right.

Be an ambivert. Listen to your customer and make a genuine attempt to understand them.

B is for Buoyancy

Buoyancy is all about staying positive and not letting rejection get you down.

Anyone who has ever tried selling something knows what it's like to get rejected. Some people are so put off by thought of rejection that they never even try to make a sale. They take rejection of a product as a personal rejection of their worth as a human being -- obviously to be a great salesperson you cannot let rejection get the better of you. You must be buoyant.

Pink's strategies for remaining buoyant are broken into three stages; before, during and after.

For me, the most important part of being buoyant is the final stage: explanatory style.

If you try to make a sale and are turned away, you naturally explain your failure in one of two ways: optimistically or pessimistically. When a pessimit is rejected, they say something like: 'This is all my fault. I can't sell anything to anyone, and it will never get better.' They see rejection as a permanent, pervasive and personal thing.

On the other hand, optimists recognise that rejection is almost always:

  • temporary ('Not this time, but maybe they will say yes next time.)
  • specific to a particular situation ('They just weren't in the mood today, but not everyone will be that way.')
  • and almost never personal ('They aren't rejecting me personally, they just don't need what I'm selling at the moment.')

People with an optimistic explanatory style stick with things longer, make more sales and quit their jobs far less frequently than pessimists. Of course, Pink isn't recommending a pair of rose tinted glasses - you shouldn't be blindly optimistic no matter what. Instead, you should try to form what's called 'flexible optimism - optimism with it's eyes open.' (Pink is quoting Martin Seligman.)

C is for Clarity

Finally, there is clarity which is all about identifying the real problem (through attunement, above) and framing your product or service in the right way for your customer.

People pay for products or services to solve a problem, but they aren't always experts on what the real problem is, or what the best solution looks like. For instance let's say a team of accountants is working on a bunch of spreadsheets together. They go to a software developer and ask him to build them a messaging service so that they can talk to each other more easily and make sure that everyone is using the latest version of the spreadsheet.

It sounds like the accountants know the problem, but actually it might be the case that a messaging service is not what they need. What they need is something like 'Dropbox' - a cloud storage solution which each person can update in real time so that everyone is working on the same thing.

In this way, the salesman's job is often not just to listen to the customer identify the problem. The salesman may also have to help the customer see that they haven't got to the 'root' of a problem, or that the solution they have identified isn't the best one.

As for framing - the general idea is that you can frame your offering in a number of ways that will impact whether customer chooses to buy. The 'frames' that Pink talks about are:

  • The less frame: Too many options can be a bad thing. If there are lots of options then it's easy to be overwhelmed. Sometimes reducing the options to just 2 or 3 choices can greatly increase the number of people who buy.
  • The experience frame: People gain more happiness from experiences, so frame your sale in experiential terms. If you're selling a car, don't spend too long on how nice the leather seats are, talk about how it will make them feel to drive along the coast on a beautiful summer evening.
  • The label frame: When you assign a positive label to a person or group then they often conform to that positive characteristic.
  • The potential frame: Potential is more interesting than accomplishment - sell yourself on your future as well as past.

The final part of clarity is giving your customers clear directions on how to act. It should be very easy for them to take the next step, and they shouldn't have to spend time trying to 'figure out' what to do.

Go and sell!

So, there we have the new ABCs of selling. If you're keen to learn more, I would very much recommend Daniel Pink's book, it goes into much more detail. The final third of the book is all about how to act when you're selling, and there's real practical tips on making the pitch, improvising when you need to and serving your customers to make a sale.

Of course a lot of the stuff he talks about applies not just in the cases of formally selling a product to a customer, but applies to any occasion when you need to persuade someone.

Next time you're having a disagreement with someone, try the ABCs of selling. Attune yourself to their way of thinking - what are they really concerned about? Try to be buoyant - don't take the disagreement personally, it won't last forever. And aim for clarity - identify the real problem and frame your solution in the best way.

Hope that helps!

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