It was a Friday morning and I happened to be drinking vodka.
I don’t even drink, but I’d just closed a deal with the CEO of a Mongolian hedge fund and he insisted on drinking shots to celebrate.
From his boardroom on the twelfth floor, I could see the frozen streets of Ulaanbaatar below, a foreboding reminder that I still had the rest of winter in the world’s coldest capital city to suffer through, not to mention a half-million dollar target to hit.
But hey, I was 24, working in one of the world’s most interesting emerging markets, and gaining experience doing something my entry-level consulting position back in New York hadn’t prepared me to do: sell.
And not just sell to anyone, but sell to presidents, prime ministers, CEOs, and other intimidatingly influential personalities in every country where I was sent, from Nigeria to Qatar, South Africa to Turkey. I landed the gig through the simple magic of referrals–namely the “weak link” kind that research has shown to be the most powerful. A friend of a friend was in the same position and recommended me for an opening.
In just one week, I did a first-round interview, flew out to the company’s European headquarters for the final round, and received and accepted an offer on the spot. That may go against traditional career coach–issued advice, but it worked for me and I never regretted it. I flew straight home, quit my consulting job, and was off to my first assignment in Nigeria a few weeks later.
In my new role as country director for an international media company, I was in charge of selling advertising in promotional country reports that would be distributed by major media brands. And all the while, I had to manage a remote team of three, no matter where those sales duties took me.
Needless to say, it was a formative experience. Here’s how it’s shaped my career ever since.
There are some jobs you can’t possibly know exist until you leave a corporate hub like New York or San Francisco.
For two years, I pitched in parliamentary palaces, climbed 10 stories in Ethiopian office buildings with no elevator, and drove to government offices halfway across countries I’d arrived in less than 48 hours before. I would fly from the Middle East to South America on the same day if we scored a half-hour slot with the governor of a central bank.
I signed contracts with farmers in warehouses in Paraguay and with CEOs in top-floor multinational headquarters in Johannesburg. The contrasts of these experiences kept me on my toes. I learned to strategize, pitch, negotiate, and close deals on five continents and in a handful of languages.
Some people say that everything is sales, and I’ve reluctantly come to believe them.
In February 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported that the youngest members of the workforce are hesitating to take sales jobs, and a Forbes contributor agreed, arguing the same year that companies needed to do a better job (ironically enough) of selling their sales positions to sales-shy millennials.
Here’s the thing, though: Selling is a universal skill, and it’s instrumental in every career. Personally, I couldn’t be happier that I took a couple of years early in my own career to pound the pavement and learn the ins and outs of sales. In the process, I single-handedly delivered over $1.5 million in revenue to my company in 27 months. Even if you aren’t in a sales role, you need to be able to interact with people you’ve never met before, learn what they need, and explain how you can help deliver it to them at a competitive price (ever been on a job interview?).
I learned directly from government officials and company executives about every imaginable industry, from stocks and steel to reinsurance and cement. I toured leather factories, soybean farms, and coffee plantations, learning to speak the language of my clients, whether that was investment banking or industrial agriculture. To this day, I’m one of the only people my age who I know has this depth or breadth of firsthand sales experience.
And it’s proved to be an asset, even outside of sales jobs. Since exiting that role in 2015, I’ve moved into an operations and project management position for a top tech company in Silicon Valley. I know I’m going to keep drawing on my experience as a young, globetrotting sales rep in the years ahead.
People in my former company have big personalities. Every one of us can walk into a boardroom of 10 executives in any foreign country on the planet and command the room in at least three different languages. We ooze confidence and enthusiasm for our product, the country we’re in, and the person in front of us. We know it’s not only what we say, but how we say it.
That job taught me to project confidence when I least felt like it, which has been a useful lesson for everything from assuming leadership on a new team to going on Tinder dates in New York. The more confidently I act, the better I perform.
I was taught to keep my eyes on the objective of every meeting with a potential client, which was usually a signed contract. You can be friendly, but you’re always steering the interaction.
The ability to subtly maintain control of an interaction as it unfolds is a powerful job skill. It’s useful for every type of business interaction on the planet: What’s the goal of the email you’re sending? What do you want to communicate to your boss during your weekly check-in? What are the most important parts of your work experience to get across during your job interview? If you can be clear and purposeful the whole time, you can keep things moving in your direction.
For every one-hour sales meeting, I prepared for days. I always researched the company, its competitors, the entire industry, the relevant economic background of the country it operated in, and the career and personal history of the individual I was going to meet.
I apply this principle to every meeting I have with important stakeholders in my current job, and I plan to do the same on every new job interview I ever go on. I’m notorious for not leaving my house for up to 48 hours before a big interview, but my preparation pays off when I know the company, the role, and my most relevant experience inside and out.
Your attitude is an aura. No matter what you’re saying or how big you’re smiling, people can feel how you feel. If you’re always focused on the positive, your team will be more motivated, your friends will want to spend more time with you, and some researchers say you’ll attract better mates and earn more money in the long run.
In my sales job, I focused less on the likelihood that we’d probably sell $25,000 that week and more on the possibility of landing a six-figure deal at any moment. I made my team’s mantra about aiming for the big wins, not getting by with the minimum to make our target.
In life, I’ve learned that you can either focus on the probable or the possible. Guess which one successful people choose more often.
Contrary to what many people think about salespeople (smarmy, ingratiating, fake), my sales job taught me to be deeply authentic. Americans tend to want to get straight down to business, but some of my biggest sales were made after hours of talking to CEOs in Latin America or Africa about their grandmothers or their hometown cricket teams or their passion for woodworking. And it was genuinely wonderful.
Sales, and life itself, is about making connections, sharing experiences, admitting mistakes, laughing, and letting go. Doing it well demands being human, which is something we forget when we get caught up in competition, money, sales targets, promotions, and power–things that can add to your stress and cloud your judgment in any role in any industry, anywhere in the world.
More than anything else, my experience as a sales rep traveling around on my own made me more comfortable opening up to all kinds of people, understanding what we’re all really saying (and not saying), and creating space for human connections, not just commercial ones. I can’t think of a better training ground right at the start of my career.
Elaina Giolando is an international project manager and digital nomad who’s lived and worked in more than 50 countries. She writes about global careers, unconventional lifestyle design, and meaningful travel on Life Before 30.