The Self-Pity Zone: You Can't Go There

by | March 10, 2009

  • My Vault

Did anybody promise you an easy career change?

We've all had those days. Despite careful planning, something didn't work out. You tried your best, but someone rained on your parade.

The F-word - failure - looms. You become discouraged, disheartened. The future seems dismal. You have entered the Self-Pity Zone. It's so seductive to slip into that zone, pondering how unfair life is, luxuriating in anger, blaming others and wallowing in "what's the use?"

Career changers really can't go there. Or if you do, you can't stay more than a few minutes. Winners pick themselves up and keep going. Here are a few of my favorite stories about career mistakes, rejections and perseverance.

Kellogg's Corn Flakes were created by accident. The brothers Kellogg (Will and J.H.) were trying to make healthy, good-tasting foods. One experiment (which wouldn't qualify for my "yummy" list) involved boiling wheat dough and running it through rollers to create sheets. Some unrolled dough was mistakenly left out overnight. The next day, Will put it through the rollers, and it broke up into flakes. Their test tasters liked it and asked for more. Next came trials with barley, oat and corn flakes.

How many rejection letters have you received? Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker, kept three huge notebooks of them on his desk while he sought financing for his next film. All of those no's had come in response to fundraising efforts for his film, Brooklyn Bridge. The notebooks reminded him to persevere while trying to find sponsors for a film about the Civil War.

Every week for two to three years, Bruce Eric Kaplan submitted 10, 15 or more cartoons to The New Yorker. Every week, he was rejected. He is now a staff cartoonist for that magazine and a TV writer and producer. In an April 5, 2004 Newsweek article, Mr. Kaplan discussed his perseverance:

"I never missed a week ... The rejection letter fromThe New Yorker says, 'We regret to inform you that we're not interested in your material.' That's paraphrasing, but it's pretty close. And it's not signed. It's about the size of an index card ... About the time I got my first writing job I came home from work and there was a FedEx [parcel]. I opened it up and it said, 'Dear Bruce, I know you think we haven't been looking at your cartoons, but ...'"

Early in his career, comedian Steve Martin was doing well as a writer for TV shows. Performing his own material meant less money and more risk, but that's what he wanted to do. In 1975 after years of small-time performances, he was booked as the headliner at a San Francisco club. Just three weeks before, Mr. Martin had been the opening act for two performing elephants at the Nugget Casino in Sparks, Nevada.

When I feel discouraged and fall into a self-indulgent "boo-hoo, I didn't get what I wanted" moment (yes, we all do it!) I think about Bill Porter. That probably isn't a name you know unless you saw Door to Door, the 2002 made-for-TV movie about him.

Bill Porter has cerebral palsy, a crippling, painful neurological disorder that affects the muscles and basically traps a person in a body that doesn't respond to commands from the brain. Mr. Porter wanted to work, but he couldn't hold a pen or use a cash register. He walked with great difficulty and slurred his words. Labeled "unemployable" by the State of Oregon, he was supposed to sit at home and collect disability checks for the rest of his life.

Mr. Porter had other plans: he was going to find a job. His mother got involved with starting a workshop for people with cerebral palsy. To raise money for that program, he tried selling redwood planters door-to-door. He sold lots of planters!

In 1954 he applied for a door-to-door job selling household products for the Watkins Company. They turned him down. He persisted and was finally offered a territory because no one else wanted it. Knocking on doors that other salesmen had given up on, lugging a heavy sample case and slogging through bad weather, he was out there five days a week. He was unstoppable. One "no" after another? Doors slammed in his face? It didn't matter; he'd go back and try again ... and again. Mr. Porter eventually began doing so well that the company gave him a better territory, and he was even more successful. Some years, he was their top retail salesman in a four-state region.

Shelly Brady, his long-time assistant and friend, wrote a book about him, Ten Things I Learned from Bill Porter. She gave us a glimpse of his determination:

"I knew there was something I could do. I felt it deep inside. My mother told me I could do anything I set out to do and I believed her. I set out to work and nothing could make me take my eyes off that goal. When I was let go from the jobs the unemployment office set me up with, I was frustrated and discouraged, but I wouldn't let those feelings fester. I pushed them aside and kept going back. Eventually, I knew the right job would come my way. You must have faith in yourself and work hard. I learned that from my mother, my father, and God."

By 1995 he was the only Watkins salesman who still sold door-to-door. He now sells only through a web site.

You can read an article about Bill Porter, "Life of a Salesman," by Tom Hallman Jr. of The Oregonian (November 19, 1995).

Filed Under: Job Search

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