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    The Butterfly Hunter

    Excerpted from
    The Butterfly Hunter: Adventures of People Who Found Their True Calling Way Off the Beaten Path
    By Chris Ballard

    Why do we work? Sometimes it's to pay the rent. Other times, it's because we find it rewarding. Then, still other times, it's because a friend from Vermont calls and persuades us to sell vacuum cleaners.

    Or at least that's what happened to me six months after college, when my friend Eric contacted me.

    "You think I should sell what?" I asked, incredulous.

    "Vacuums," he said, as if this were the most natural idea in the world. "But not just any vacuums. These are Kirbys."

    My first reaction was to laugh. But Eric, who'd been peddling the machines for a few months, was resolute. Not only was there a big paycheck involved, he assured me, but the work was ridiculously easy. Just show up, smile real big, and the machine practically sold itself. I pointed out that I hadn't spent four years at a liberal arts college so that I could sell vacuums. He countered that I hadn't spent four years preparing to be a bartender either, but it hadn't stopped me from doing that. He had a point.

    So I headed to a local Kirby dealership in Philadelphia, confident that I would be an instant success. After all, how hard could it be? I'd always fancied myself something of a natural salesman, primarily because I'd made a killing selling raffle tickets in my younger days. More important, I assumed anything Eric could do, I could do at least as well, if not better. I figured I'd match or overtake his sales figures within two months -three, tops.

    Calling this a misconception does not do justice to the word. Not only was I not a "natural salesman," it is debatable whether I could have even been considered a salesman, as by definition salesmen make sales. In the five weeks I worked for Kirby, I moved a total of two vacuums, and if it weren't for my exceptionally supportive parents, it would have been only one. In hindsight, I think my downfall was that I didn't believe that the people I was pitching the vacuums to really needed them. When they would frown at me and say, "We can't afford a vacuum that costs 81,400," I felt like responding, "Who can?"

    But of course I couldn't say that. What I was supposed to say was, "The question is, can you afford not to buy a Kirby today?" I wasn't ever to refer to the Kirby as anything as pedestrian as a vacuum either. Rather, the Kirby was a "cleaning system," one that, if you believed my sales pitch, was possibly the most technologically advanced household product ever created, if not the pinnacle of humankind's evolution from a preindustrial society. It featured something billed as a "TechDrive Variable Power Assist" and an internal fan redesigned with the help of NASA. Yeah, I would tell potential customers, that NASA.

    There is no doubt that the Kirby-heavy, metallic, and tanklike, with a headlight in the front-is an impressive machine. To convince customers of this, the company sells the machines solely through in-home sales calls camouflaged as "free carpet cleanings," each of which lasts at least ninety minutes. The key to these demos was to make the customers feel worthless. So we would attack their carpets and remove gobs and gobs of dirt, all of it collected on small, round paper demonstration filters we pulled from the guts of the Kirby. (I say "we" because all Kirby acolytes used the same approach, drilled into us in a two-day training session.) Then we would brandish these filters in the face of the customers to show them how despicably, dangerously, disgustingly filthy their home was. I felt like a detective yanking out the crucial piece of evidence. Recognize this, Mrs. Walker?

    Next came the infamous Kirby video, which showed horrifically enlarged armies of dust mites marching in formation across the pillows and sofas of America, accompanied by an ominous voice-over detailing the health dangers these microscopic monsters pose for children. More specifically, your children. And where were these mites lurking? Ah, that led to the final touch, the purposeful climb up the stairs to the bedroom, where we would despoil any sense of security that remained: we vacuumed the bed. Oh the horror when filter after filter-fifteen, twenty of them, each stained brown with thousands of little dust mite carcasses-was lifted from the mattress-the very mattress, it needed no underscoring, where their children slept every night.

    And just when our potential customers felt the absolute worst, when every shred of self-respect was banished, we would salve their battered psyche with the following redemptive phrase: It's not your fault. No, the blame lay with that archaic contraption, the one that hid in the back of their closet, curled up in an apathetic ball, wasting electricity, and running over their carpet like a toothless comb. And we would condemn it from on high, their cowering vacuum, and hurl epithets at it. "Electrolux?" we would say mockingly. "More like Electrosux." And they were supposed to laugh along with us, reassured and now educated about the error of their ways. Then they would hand over the check for $1,400.

    Or at least that was how I envisioned things going for other salesmen, the ones who actually sold Kirbys instead of just cleaning people's houses for free, which is essentially what I did.

    Eric was one of those salesmen. He started working for Kirby after graduation, when he answered a newspaper ad on a whim. In his first month he sold twenty-two of the machines, or twenty more than I did during my entire "career." Tall and sturdy-though being from Pennsylvania, he always brought to mind the description "corn-fed"-he has a habit of putting his right hand on your left shoulder when he wants to convey that, yes, he understands what you are saying. In the world of vacuum sales, this bond is very important, for often what people are saying is "I haven't the slightest interest in buying that thing." To be able to empathize with and simultaneously disagree with someone is not easy, but Eric was able to pull it off.

    Within a month and a half, he was the top new salesman in the Eastern States Division and his photo was on the cover of Positive Action, which billed itself as "The Magazine for the Serious Kirby Professional!" ("Serious" was set off in red type against the surrounding blue print and, when framed against the white background, was presumably meant to suggest that peddling Kirbys was an exercise in patriotism.) Two months later, he was honored at a New Orleans awards banquet as the new salesman of the year, a title bestowed on whoever sold the most machines in one month. In a packed ballroom humming with the fervor of a political convention and decorated with enormous photos of legends of the industry, Eric entered to the strains of "Pump Up the Volume," then stood up before a crowd of more than three hundred. To prolonged applause, he spoke of his surefire strategies and added some self-deprecation for good measure. "The biggest cheer," he told me later, "was when, in a cheap attempt to win over the crowd, I said that I'd just graduated from college, and wasn't that a waste of four years of my life." He was a star; that night over beers, Kirby dealers from all over the Southeast tried to recruit him to their operations.

    Just because guys like Eric could sell Kirbys, however, that didn't mean I could. When, four months after he began, Eric left the business to attend graduate school, he confided to me that had he continued with the job he could have been making six figures within a year, and that he had already been offered his own franchise in New Hampshire. Had all stayed on course, he would have become a very wealthy man. All because he could sell vacuum cleaners.

    Though putting it like that may be oversimplifying things. He wasn't really selling a machine so much as a domestic ideal, a dirt-siphoning totem of the good life that was affordable to anyone who could make the low, low, always negotiable monthly payments. His ability to pull this off was remarkable, and I say that not just to make myself feel better (though it does). He could arrive unannounced on someone's doorstep and within two hours convince them not only that he knew what was best for them but that what was best for them was to invest $1,400 in a product they'd never seen before. To be fair, the Kirby is a good investment for some people-the kind who own expensive carpets and have the means to care for them. Still, to sell anyone such a contrivance cold requires charisma, persuasiveness, empathy, resilience, and a healthy dose of ruthlessness, all of which have to be employed strategically.

    These are not skills taught in any classroom. There are no graduate courses in Advanced Living Room Commerce. Practice helps, but either you enjoy the process-of winning over people, of surmounting objections, of bartering, of closing a deal-or you don't. Emphatically, I didn't.

    Still, I came away from my Kirby experience having learned an important lesson: Just as certain clothes will never fit, regardless of how much one inhales one's gut, certain jobs don't fit, no matter how much we may try to squeeze ourselves into them.

    For this reason, I've always found it comical when a certain profession is described across the board as a "dream job, " as if we could all agree upon what constitutes such an ideal. Professional athletes are often said to have dream jobs, but, as someone who covers them on a regular basis as a staff writer at Sports Illustrated, I can attest to the fact that some of them are among the most jaded individuals I've ever met. Somewhere along the way from passion to profession, they lost touch with the nine-year-old they once were, the one who put on mittens to go shoot baskets in the winter, retrieving the ball each time from its snow dimple. So we impugn them when they complain, because they're being paid millions to play a child's game, for God's sake. They should be the happiest people on the planet, or so the equation goes: something you love to do plus gobs of money to do it equals happiness.

    This math is part of a larger, and, as it turns out, thoroughly modern, belief that we are supposed to find happiness through our work. We speak of finding meaningful work, or, more grandly, a "true calling." Originally, this was a religious concept, that man is called by God to his profession; the Bible says, "Seest thou a man active in his calling, he shall stand before Kings." Today, however, the meaning has been thoroughly secularized. In the course of researching this book, I saw the term used in a full-page ad for a Chevrolet Cobalt sedan ("IT'S NOT A SIGNAL. IT'S A CALLING"), in the admissions materials for St. Olaf College (defined as, "when your day's work and your life's work meet"), and in a job posting for a cell phone company ("Find your calling; Find your future with T-Mobile").

    The concept of a "dream job" is bandied about just as casually. During a one-month period in 2004, one could have purchased the following magazines at a newsstand: an issue of Men's Journal trumpeting "the 50 Best Jobs in America" and offering up fishing guide, general manager of a pro baseball team, and NFL quarterback as examples (apparently, the jobs didn't necessarily need to be attainable); a copy of Business 2.0 magazine with a cover story entitled "How to Land Your Dream Job," in which the first two sentences read, "Wouldn't you really rather be doing something else for a living? Be honest," before elevating professions such as the stay-at-home blogger, an MD-turned-mutual fund manager, and the same baseball GM (Paul DePodesta of the Dodgers); and, finally, Worthwhile, a magazine bearing the credo "Work with Purpose, Passion and Profit" that cited a Gallup poll finding that only 29 percent of workers in America are "actively engaged" in their work, and touted nine people who loved their jobs (including the chef Alice Waters).

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