Personal Development: Secrets of Getting Better at Almost Anything

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When my grandfather’s business failed, my mother’s plans for college vaporized and she had to get a job to help support the family. She found work on the candy counter at the local five and dime. For a while, she was angry and upset. She’d go home to the third-floor walkup that was now the family’s home and pound on the piano, taking out her frustration on the instrument.

One day, she realized that the world was not likely to change, and so she probably should. She decided that she was going be a success where she was. She decided to become a great candy salesperson. She wouldn’t make any more money, but she figured that concentrating on getting better would keep her from thinking about how hard life had become.

Years later, my aunt told about going down to the five and dime to meet my mother after work. Customers would be lined up at her station on the counter while the other young women who worked the counter stood around with nothing to do. So, how did she get from “I want to be a great salesperson” to being one?

Know What You Want

My mother had a clear idea of what her big goal was, and that goal didn’t change. But her goals for the amount of candy she sold or the number of people she served changed as she got better and better. Set a goal that’s a big enough “Why” to inspire you. Then set a series of achievable goals for each step in your journey.

Figure Out What You Have to Do

There wasn’t any training program or any books about how to become a great candy salesperson at the five and dime. My mother had to come up with her own development plan. Even if your company has a program for you, you must take charge of your own growth and development.

She studied the best candy salesperson in her store. She learned some things. It wasn’t enough, though.

She made a breakthrough when she decided to study the customers. She observed that customers like to be called by name. So, she started keeping track of her customer’s names. She started writing their names on little note cards and adding some distinguishing feature that would remind her of a person’s name when he or she came to the counter. At night, she enlisted her younger brother to help her use her notes as flashcards.

She found that people bought more from her when she smiled, so she made it a point to smile. A small pocket mirror that she could see while she worked reminded her.

Mom noticed that lots of people bought candy for special days. Sometimes it was a special day for everyone, like Valentine’s Day. Other times, though, it was a birthday or an anniversary. She started adding notes on the special days for her customers.

The thing that I liked most when she told me about it years later was the trick about how to serve up the candy. Mom noticed when she had to remove candy from the scale to make the weight the customer ordered, they tended to frown. On the other hand, if she put a little bit less than the weight on the scale and then added candy, customers seemed happier. That became a feature of her sales.

There Will Be Benefits You Don’t Expect

My mother became the top candy salesperson at her store, but she got more. As she hoped, concentrating on improving her sales improved her mood, and probably saved the piano a few beatings.

She also developed a habit of observation that served her well. From then until the day she died, those little note cards were part of her life. What she learned about people and sales gave her insights that helped her win a copywriting award decades later.

One of the wonderful things about putting in the effort and attention to improve your performance is that it repays with multiple benefits. The lessons you learn are a part of your life forever. And the skills you master find use in other arenas.

Go for It

If you want to get better at something, you probably can. Maybe you want to be a better writer, or parent, or salesperson, or woodworker. It doesn’t matter. Most of us are performing so far below our capacity that you almost certainly have a big upside. So, pick something and go for it.

Bottom Line

If you want to get better at something, decide what it is you want to improve. Figure out what good performance looks like and what you must do to deliver it. Try new things and keep the ones that work. And enjoy the journey.

Some Personal Development Resources

The 100 Best Business Books of All Time: What They Say, Why They Matter, and How They Can Help You by Jack Covert and Todd Sattersten

The Best Business Books Ever: The Most Influential Management Books You’ll Never Have Time To Read by Editors Of Perseus Publishing and Perseus Publishing

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