What are you selling?

By Mike Cook
For the Bellingham Business Journal

On a Saturday morning, back in May of 1962, I left my house in search of a summer job. I walked nearly eight miles that day and eventually I found a local drive-in that was hiring and came home victorious, I had found a job! They were out there, you just had to be willing to put in the time to find them.

Interesting thing about jobs in those days, there seemed to be many that just about anyone could do and if you could afford to work for minimum wage you could almost always find someplace to work.

As time passed, my willingness to work for minimum changed as I raised my expectations. As it turned out there was still a question, how were my qualifications any different than when I came out of high school?

I had spent nearly five years in college to get a degree in multi-disciplinary social science without much focus on what I wanted to do after graduation, assuming that, as before, I could always find a job. And I did, as a seventh grade arithmetic teacher in a rural school district.

It turned out I wasn’t very good at it, and at the end of a year I decided to go to graduate school in hopes of finding a better job. Notice the emphasis on finding a better job — no thought given to what I wanted to do or what I was good at. I didn’t come from those kinds of people or that way of thinking, we were employees, it was in our history to look for and find jobs.

Fast forward ten years and after having found a good job, making much better money, I arrived at a point where I was very unhappy.

I could do the work, I had great people to work with, great benefits … But something was missing. I was bored and underutilized, so I left.

Eventually a friend asked me what has become one of the most important questions I have ever encountered: he asked, “What are you selling?”

I told him that I wasn’t selling anything; I was looking for a job that I would truly enjoy. We talked for a while and eventually I came around to the perspective that my approach was very risk averse.

I wanted someone else to tell me what to do, in no way had it ever occurred to me to consider what I could do, and put myself in a position where I would promise someone that if they let me do it I’d produce value for them.

That’s what my friend meant by selling: what promise was I willing to make, beyond showing up and doing what someone else wanted me to do?

That was January 1980, a lot has changed since then, in the world and in my life. I learned through trial and error what I was selling, formed my own business, operated it for 26 years, made money, lost money and learned a lot. From that day to this I have never looked for a job.

Now I teach people the same age as I was, when I began to answer the “What are you selling?” question.

As I did, they find the question confronting. Unlike me, they are facing a very different world, a world where many of the jobs that were out there for the finding are no longer available, not because they are filled, because they are gone, either to a lower cost labor market or replaced by technology.

Consider these words, torn from the text of a blog I was reading recently:

“Some fear that robots and AI will steal our jobs. They probably will (in the near-term, at least half of them). If that happens, what will we do for a living? How will we earn money?”

The reality we are living in now is one where the answer to the question, “What are you selling?” may be the most important one we can be putting in front of our children, even if we have not answered it yet for ourselves.

Saturday night I was on the phone with a young man with incredible graphic arts skills and a deep understanding of the digital world we live it, an understanding that defies my imagination. He was calling from Thailand.

Recently he has called from Vietnam or Thailand, depending on the surfing conditions in the South China Sea.

He was born in Minnesota and has decided to live what he calls a nomadic lifestyle, where he can combine his love of travel, skills in graphic design and knowledge of the digital world. He is not looking for a job; he is creating an offer that can be made to a certain type of customer in a certain market, people with interests like his own.

He’ll do it, and he’ll be successful.

When I talk with him I feel out of step, but I am old and my needs are few so there is no threat; how about you?

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