Lightning Rods - By Helen DeWitt


One way of looking at it is that it was just an unfortunate by-product of Hurricane Edna.

If you’re in sales you know that life has its ups and its downs. He was living in Eureka, Mo., a district he’d been given only because nobody else wanted it, and with reason. He was supposed to be selling the Encyclopaedia Britannica to people who simply couldn’t see how their lives would be transformed by instant access to the Micropaedia and the Macropaedia. He had been there six months and hadn’t made a single sale.

One day it occurred to him that the problem was he was selling something people could do without. How much better to sell something people knew they needed anyway! Something that didn’t make people give you weird looks! Something like vacuum cleaners. Because he just knew the problem wasn’t with him. The problem wasn’t even with the product. The problem was with the people.

He wasn’t the kind to let grass grow under his feet, so he walked straight into the nearest Electrolux office.

Geographically speaking, it might not have been an office most people would have identified as even in the vicinity. Asked to name a state that’s close to Missouri, very few people come up with Florida; those few tend to change their minds when they look at a map. Which just goes to show how easy it is to be misled by our assumptions, overlook the obvious, and jump to conclusions.

What most people assume is that you can answer a question like that just by looking at a map. And what they overlook is the fact that when you start a new job it’s important to give it everything you’ve got.

It’s important to give that new job 101%, 25 hours a day, 366 days a year. You simply can’t afford to have any distractions. If the reason you gave up your old job was that it was not sufficiently remunerative to enable you to meet your commitments, you may well find yourself with some debts which it would be distracting to deal with at this time. It’s absolutely vital to start the new job in an area where any difficulties you may have experienced in the past are unlikely to lead to unwelcome distractions. He needed to be based in a locality presenting no foreseeable distractions, and he selected the nearest Electrolux office which would enable him to meet that need, and he walked straight in.

When you’re in sales you’ve always got one thing to sell, and that’s yourself. He walked in and started talking about what he could do for Electrolux sales and they said You’re that good. All I ask is the chance to show what I can do, he said, and they said All right, hot shot, let’s see what you can do, and they gave him a district.

He familiarized himself with the product and moved to Eureka, Fla., and rented a trailer. The next day he got cracking.

By the end of the week he realized this was not going to be as easy as it looked. Because every single house he went to had the same story to tell. They already had an Electrolux, they’d bought it just after Hurricane Edna, and it was one of the best things they’d ever done. The customer would then insist on dragging out the faithful Electrolux and singing its praises. Yessir, the customer would say, reckon I’ll break down before this thing does.

In fact, the place was every salesman’s nightmare: a festering swamp of market saturation. A rep had come through and cleaned up in the wake of Hurricane Edna and every single item he had sold was still there in good working order.

He tried, obviously, to point out that time doesn’t stand still, enhancements had been introduced, but once again Hurricane Edna blew him out of the water. The customer would explain loyally that she wouldn’t dream of replacing her old model, you should have seen what we had to deal with, she would explain, the Electrolux had handled things you wouldn’t normally ask of a vacuum cleaner.

He managed to make one sale to someone who had just moved into the area.

The result was that he spent a lot of time in the trailer trying to get up the energy to go out. He would lie in bed with a magazine, or sometimes he would watch a video, or sometimes he used fantasies of his own.

His first fantasy was about walls. The woman would have the