Fresh out of UW business school in 1993, I took my first “real” job in outside sales: pushing corporate long distance plans.
Salary: minimum wage ($4.25/hr at the time) plus 4% sales commission. No expenses, including gas, which I paid myself.
It was to be, naturally, the first step on my way up to the C-Suites of a global corporation.
The team called those of us in our first quarter of sales “plebes”. It was a BFD to win the West Coast Territory Plebe Sales Contest: the top seller would receive a Mont Blanc Pen.
Every day, the sales team dangled the carrot in their singsongy voices: “Who wants that pen?!”
So I’d hustle, in my pantyhose and heels (actual dress code requirement for women back then, FML); starting at 7a with a early 90s style bro-heavy sales meeting in the Holland-America building near Belltown, then heading out to cold-call on foot and close deals in my territory: anywhere north of Seattle city limits.
I was 22, cute, and fodder for every miserable middle aged asshole wearing cheap, company-branded polo shirts and pleated khakis working in any office park in Snohomish County who thought it appropriate to leer and comment on my appearance, pantyhose-covered legs, fuckability, or really any topic of their liking except why I was there: to discuss long distance plans.
That first quarter I closed 60 or so annual contract deals and made Allnet Communications a cumulative $135,000 in revenue, not a small sum for 30 years ago.
Out of like 80 plebes across 6 states, I won that fucking pen.
Last spring, 30 years later, I completed a once-in-a-lifetime hike: Balcon Grand Sud, 6 miles of high elevation trail across the valley from the actual Mont Blanc in Chamonix. She’s stunning and enormous: 15777 feet tall and so wide she won’t fit in the horizontal camera of an iPhone.
I hadn’t thought of being a plebe salesperson in decades, but several times I rounded a corner with yet another stunning view and pinch myself that I’m living one *wild* story and the memory of that Mont Blanc pen and the lessons I’ve carried since hit me like a brick…
… The morning meeting when I was announced winner and presented my pen (as if it were a diamond Cartier watch and not some dumb $150 writing utensil I could use to close *more* deals for the company), my sales manager not only managed to diminish my work, but also: Surprise! …. informed me that since we were rookies and had been “helped” by senior sales bros that quarter, all plebes’ sales commission would be a flat $30 per contract rather than the standard 4% I’d been promised.
That morning, I took my pen, and my heels and my middle finger and I busted out of that office, vowing never to work for a greedy corporate machine again.
My B-School training goals to climb the corporate ladder came to an abrupt halt.
The next day, I booked a one-way ticket to Hawaii, where I spent most of my 20s waiting tables in some fancy places.
At the time I felt insecure: That I was falling behind in the grind, where my UW classmates were buying homes in Seattle and getting promoted in their copier-salesperson corporate cogs, I was living on cash tips and sleeping til noon.
What garbage that thinking. I learned 100 times more about marketing, human nature and running a business from serving cocktails at a 5-star hotel than I did in 4 years of business classes.
The Day of the Pen was the last day I ever wore heels to work.
And since that day in my early 20s, I’ve have three major career trajectory shifts, all different iterations of my dharma at the time, culminating in owning a business I love and working with amazing people, which has afforded me the privilege of turning each corner of the trail facing Mont Blanc, the most magnificent mountain.
I’m teaching Dharma School: a 3-Saturday series in January, where I try to package what I’ve come to believe about dharma and work so far this lifetime. Will you join us?
Oh, and I still have that pen.