I am the child of two loving parents. One gifted me a living background in philosophy and mysticism; the other gave me the gift of verbal conceptualisation… talking.
(1500 words; a ten minute read)
My father passed away a decade ago. We’re still clinging on to mother, who at 91, is robust only in her ability to talk. She is in our care for the foreseeable future and I would like nothing better than that she passes away gently, in that state of being loved and cared for… if not always understood.
Neither of my parents had a clue about the sciences, yet I, despite being a moderate folk-singer in my youth, I eschewed the rock star dream and headed for a Computer Science degree, achieving it after four years (the old-style ‘sandwich course’) of struggle at a Polytechnic in the north Midlands.
I was not a gifted student, but I could talk. Also, I noticed I could explain complex things quite well – finding analogies, new words and metaphors, not to mention humour, to make the complex comprehensive and… fun. I was a vice-president of the local Student Union – a natural fit with talking, I suppose.
Only one of my lecturers understood fun, and I cherish his memory. He knew I wasn’t a good student, and that my final grades were not going to rocket me into a starring role in the emerging world of computing. Remember, this was 1977, and the world of business computing was an exciting (and brutal) frontier.
My fun-loving lecturer called me into his office one day. There, opened on his old, metal desk, was a huge centre-page advert placed by a well-known American computing company named ‘Burroughs Computers’.
“Look at the headline,” he said. “They need a thousand graduates in computing to sell their computers… Looks a good package, too.” He rocked back in his chair. “Be a tough first year of survival, mind you…”
He leaned forwards, placed his giant hands on the desk and fixed me with his dark eyes, suddenly full of ice.
“Now get out of here and make something of that wonderful ability to talk!”
Two months later, clutching my degree certificate of under-achievement, I sat down in the cold kitchen of our greengrocer’s shop in Bolton and began to ring every computer company with a office in Manchester. Fifth on the list was a German company called Nixdorf, with a regional office in Sale. Minutes later, the office secretary put me through to the branch manager. I recognised a scouse accent, and the friendly but challenging voice that, bluntly, meant business.
“Why the hell would I be interested in a grubby ex-student like you? Did I mention I hate students,” he snarled, in a passable likeness of John Lennon on a bad day. I tried not to be sick with tension – which resulted in my first ever example of the fabled sales technique: the ‘power of silence’. In truth I was choking, and had taken my head as far from the phone as possible.
A door in my consciousness opened. I actually heard the ‘crack’. A rush of blood to the head and lungs and then: “Because I can talk well,” I said, clearly and slowly. I sounded calm… I wasn’t.
All I could hear was his laughing. “Bloody hell, I can‘t fault that,” he laughed. “Be here next Monday morning at 7:30. Let’s see if you can get up, as well as talk.”
He put the phone down. “Bloody hell”. I copied it to myself. My best and worst attributes in the same adrenaline rush.
I was there at 07:25 on that Monday. My orange VW Beetle, part financed by my Dad, but now my own responsibility, was parked discretely behind the office… out of the way.
I stood by the door, but not blocking it. Not overly familiar but not looking like a ‘bloody student’ either. I stood aside as he passed me. He issued a small but rueful-sounding Good morning, injected with a tiny degree of irony. Nothing else.. But he let me see his smile as he swung the door open.
I got the job. The first year didn’t go according to his plans, as I was courted and, frankly, seduced, by a divorced senior lady systems analyst who had a sporty BMW. She toyed, elegantly, with my affections and other things. She was great and we had a lot of fun, but it wasn’t learning the day job. The Branch Manager tried to warn me off. Headstrong, I wasn’t listening.
Of such things are harsh lessons made…
At the end of the year, with little sales success, I knew the manager was ready to fire me. I sank into a depression. It wasn’t that I wasn’t trying – I hadn’t let the high-octane fraternising frazzle all my brains. It seemed that no-one would take me seriously – out there in the boardrooms where people brought expensive computers. Was I just too young? Had my ability to talk failed me?
That evening, I had a pub meal with a new friend I had got to know through working in my parents’ shop. I liked Ian a lot. He had a tough but humorous, no-nonsense manner and he liked BMW cars – though he couldn’t afford one. He had been a chef, but had swapped it for a job as a salesman in a catering engineering company which made high-end industrial cookers. I was explaining my imminent demise and he was listened, deeply, reading my face. For the past few months, over several evenings, he had coached me in the nitty gritty of ‘selling the person, not the product’. He finished his drink, but continued the silence.
I went to the bar for the second round of drinks.
“Do you know,” he said, as I set the drinks down. “that selling is the only profession that gives free consultancy?”
The sentiment was new to me at the time. It hit me like adrenaline. “Look at all your training,” he continued. “Four year computing degree; ‘sandwich-course’ during which you gave up your summer holidays to work in industry. Smart, well spoken… “Whereas, half the people you are selling to are dull, imagination-less lickspittles…”
It was the first time I’d heard such sentiments. Looking back, they were designed to fire me up, but much of the sentiment was true. You had to learn to value yourself if you hoped to sell anything. I knew that, I just hadn’t ‘actualised’ it. Later, I found a better word for that.
“What are you doing tomorrow morning?” he asked, sipping his beer.
I drank mine, conscious of the importance of the day to come. “Final attempt to close the deal at a wholesale Painting Suppliers in Salford. My last chance.”
He looked at me, eagle-eyed. “What are your chances? Really?”
I drank some more beer. “Not brilliant – but there’s a nice BMW in the car park.” I’d noticed that there was definitely a correlation between that and what kind of reception we…. I… got.
“German company and all…” I continued. And the Operations Director’s a nice bloke and gets me a coffee.”
“Good,” said Ian. “Then use it. Make it count. If you’re job’s on the line, give it your all!”
Mr Johnson, the Operations Director, was a man who combined warmth and acute intelligence. His office was classy but minimalist – quite avant-guard in Salford. He watched me, intently, as I worked to summarise our proposals, and tell him why now was the right time for him to sign the deal. I felt I’d done a good job and sat back, ready to use my new friend, the power of silence to its best effect.
After twenty seconds of total, mutual silence, he rocked his chair back and let me have a half-smile.
“Steve,” he said softly. “I like you… The financial director likes you. We think we have an honest soul, here. Someone who will work with us to deliver this… beyond the selling.”
He let his chair rotate forward so his arms could lie on the desktop, and fixed me with eyes that contained a different sentiment to any he had displayed to that point. I knew something completely new was about to happen in my life.
“Now let me tell you how you’re going to sell this to us…”
In those few seconds, my entire world changed. It was the beginning of the sense of worth, related, solely, to my-self. Mr Johnson was going to instruct me in how to use that because he felt I was was worth it. That sense of worth – in this adult context – was dramatic and life-changing. I’ve never forgotten it… I’ve never wanted to. I think of it as ‘unshakable mine’.
It was only years later that I realised it had a spiritual dimension. One of the key stages in our individual development is to realise that each human has a great importance to the cosmos. This is something that can trigger a fundamental change in ourselves – and link us more closely with everything that is creative in life. We are all born with amazing potential, but we have to realise our relationship to the world we live in: The whole, vast universe of it… and ‘little us’. A Little Us that carries a spark of something almost beyond belief. But the journey to that realisation is the story of how we get there, in a weird and wonderful paradox, full of divine humour and discovery.
Finding that deep sense of self, beyond the ordinary egoic concept, is central this journey.
A week later, as promised to the Nixdorf Branch Manager, the deal was signed. It probably wasn’t the thing that saved me. My outspoken boss had fallen out with one of the senior managers in Germany and had resigned… The man who took over had warmth and had seen the effort I was making. I lived to fight – and learn – another day.
Next week, in the final part of this series, we will pull together the threads through these posts, and summarise the truly ‘big picture’ of Self-development.
Other parts in this series:
©Stephen Tanham, 2021.
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, A journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.