The World's Greatest Insurance Salesman

We stopped into Goodwill last night after stopping into CVS to get some allergy medicine. We'd already stopped into my mom's house, see, to swipe any and all balms, creams and ointments she had that could combat the spread of my poison ivy. I found no fewer than four distinct anti-ivy products, which gives a pretty accurate indication of how many other over-the-counter products she's amassed in that household. I saw things in those cabinets that will turn your shit white. Or lavender, if you'd prefer.

Goodwill was uneventful, drawing complaints from Penelope because they'd put all the blue-tagged items on one rack in the front, thereby depriving her of the storewide hunt for stuff that's half-off this week. One measly picked-over consolidated rack. WEAK, she declared.

All I found was this book, called "The Feldman Method," detailing the philosophy and achievements of mister Ben Feldman, the world's greatest insurance salesman. Copyright 1972 or something. It was even annotated, in that several sheets of transcribed quotes were tucked into chapter twelve - looping blue cursive writing on the backside of Prudential stationery. I got the impression the book had been handed out during a seminar, and that the recipient had dutifully scribbled down these important notes throughout the presentation, using his polyester-clad leg as a makeshift desk.

I carried it around the store with me for a while, unable to stop myself from paging through it. It was filled with all kinds of motivational tips from Ben Himself, this paunchy, graying little man who you'd "never suspect was the world's greatest insurance salesman." He did his thing, it said, through a carefully assembled series of techniques involving drawing information out of the prospect and asking "disturbing questions."

Let me see if I can remember what it said: "Tell me, Mr. Jones: would you work for me every day for the rest of your life for the amount of money in your life insurance policy? Probably not. That's because all your tomorrows are worth more than that." Then I guess he'd punctuate the point with a perfectly timed wink or something and urge the listener to upgrade his policy. "What would you say, Mr. Smith, if I told you that the company you've spent all your life building would be taken away as soon as you're gone by the Internal Revenue Service? And what would you say if I told you that you could keep that from happening for pennies on the dollar?"

That sort of thing.

It all sounded a lot like some other books I've seen - ones that were more or less forced into my hands by past employers. A guy I worked for briefly and who I respect urged me to read "My Life in Advertising" by Claude Hopkins. The guy even entrusted me with his personal copy, which was a remarkable thing to do because the book was extremely imporant to him, and because he had just fired me.

I can't say I liked the book much. It was very practical, very tightly focused on accomplishing a specific goal within a specfic set of circumstances. This narrow context doesn't usually bother me - I don't expect the cooking instructions on a frozen dinner to touch on Hungry Man's place in the universe, either - but it did bother me in this case and in "The Feldman Method" because it lapsed early and often into a grand, declarative tone. These guys Hopkins and Feldman got really worked up over the value of the wisdom they were imparting, and that's understandable because it's their passion, their life's work, but some of this is wisdom like "Think big. The size of your sale is proportionate to the size of the thoughts you have about it."

That sort of statement strikes you as terribly narcissistic and solipsistic, as if the whole world revolved around selling insurance or writing advertising, especially when you read it while leaning against a dusty snowmobile suit in the yellow glare of a Goodwill.

It fascinated me, though. I don't know if I can explain it any better than It just did. I just stared and stared at that book.

The phrase "world's greatest" anything does invite derision, probably a lot more than it did in 1972, and definitely a lot more than it did at an insurance conference in 1972. I'm not sure what changed so much, to make me twinge instead of swoon when reading the received wisdom of big fish in tiny, long-since filled-in ponds. I'm not even sure anything did change - the guy who gave me the advertising book felt strongly that it was every bit as relevant today as it had been forty years ago. Also, some punk kid will probably be laughing his ass off at a Tony Robbins book forty years from now, or at the Luke Sullivan book I currently swear by. Motivational books are just funny that way.

But I want to figure out why. What's so funny about people trying to help other people do what they did? Why do I stand mute with horror as I read an earnestly written, well-intended handbook on how to make millions selling whole life insurance? These things are important to some people - really important. So maybe I should let it slide when book authors and the people who laud them on back covers seem to forget their place in the universe. Maybe forgetting your place in the universe is what gives this life the only kind of significance it's gonna get - the kind that comes from the universes of our own creation.

In his world, Feldman was the Greatest Insurance Salesman. Good for him. Who am I to mock him, especially from clear over here in my world? I do think there's such a thing as taking yourself too seriously. I also think there's such a thing as not taking yourself seriously enough. I mean, after all, what do I know?

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