selling to strangers

At the end of September, I attended an intimate dinner with builders from all walks of life. We were united over a single mission to collectively explore the new Web3 space. After an entire summer of chaotic energy and high-fidelity interactions, I thought I would have reached a plateau in my engagement and enthusiasm for this. While it is a place of possibility and prosperity, New York City is also equal parts draining, even for the most seasoned socialites.

Yet the KERNEL gathering completely surprised me. Who was in the room? The leadership team curated a peer-to-peer learning cohort of ~250 individuals, each with their own unique backgrounds, passions, and truths. Their goal is simple: to create a deeply intentional community to collectively build towards a better web. In their words, life is but a garden to be cultivated. I left after 3 hours feeling so energized and fulfilled from a night with no set agenda, no rules and obligations, and no semblance of an artificial networking session.

Of course, hosting events with strangers present an inevitable networking angle. No matter where you go, you can never really avoid what I call The Question:

“So... what do you do? 

Any permutation of that string of words triggers angst in many. How much do you say? Is just saying the role and company enough? What's the fine line between “flexing” and authentically communicating your narrative & career arc? It's easy to overthink The Question, but I think the minimum viable response is just your name and what you're working on / what you've been thinking about lately. If all else fails, default to showing genuine enthusiasm and curiosity: “I'm excited to be here! Would love to hear your own story :)”

Settings like rooftop mixers, founder brunches, VC happy hours are likely the biggest violators of turning The Question into a performative beauty contest — the amount of pitching, fundraising, and evaluating can feel nauseating to folks at the fringes. But at smaller-scale gatherings, The Question is usually asked as a formality to help level-set expectations and support follow-up conversations. Even so, it can feel like you're donning a sleazy salesperson costume, abandoning the authentic self in favour of a carefully edited production-ready persona.

The truth is that we're always selling. This phrase sounds so overcooked, but we have to remember that people default to mnemonics, patterns, and stories to increase knowledge retention. So the best way to activate the working memory of strangers you meet is selling yourself with the aid of a strong symbol. That's why being known as "The X Person" is super valuable in an online context: David Perell as The Writing Guy, Li Jin as The Passion Economy Girl, and Naval Ravikant as The Angel Philosopher. Combined with the cocktail party effect the brain's ability to focus attention on a specific stimulus while filtering out everything else — the inherent ability to sell amplifies your physical presence.

Embracing the multi-dimensional quality of the KERNEL cohort, I wanted to experiment with an unconventional self-introduction. I was curious to see the public reaction by initiating with an artistic passion and ignoring any technical credentials. Happily subverting the networking status quo, I proudly exclaimed:

“I'm Sam, and I'm an improv comedian!

For me, immersing myself in comedy improved my salesmanship a lot. The art of improv forces you to constantly cycle through new characters and sell their stories in a believable way. Notice the unusual thing. Anything and everything can be framed as unusual. Through the “Yes, And” principle, justify the observation and add on top of your scene partner's ideas. If this is true, what else is true? In my experience, these are also the unwritten ingredients for a good entertainer — at work, at parties, and at dinners with tech-savvy strangers.

This begs the question: what does an identity truly mean in today's world? People were definitely more intrigued hearing the comedian narrative as opposed to a remix of software engineer or product manager at X. It's interesting to me how uttering simple keywords like “Tim Hortons”, “Substack newsletter”, and “new to tech, new to Web3” with a booming voice pulls immediate attention and adds intrigue. Wow, I guess both my business communications professor and my improv instructor would be proud of my performance here.

The thing is, I've never thought of myself as a salesperson, even though people always tell me that I would crush it in a sales-oriented career. Part of the reason is that sales jobs get a bad reputation in business school, despite being high-leverage & high-compensation career paths in and of themselves. The other part is that I don't consciously think about “selling” in many situations — it's a natural extension of storytelling for me. The biggest thing I dislike about this sales analogy applied to life is how the energy feels entirely extractive. I'm going to impress you with my list of qualifications and then I'll ask you for a favour. It's the perfect breeding ground to play zero-sum status games.

I propose an update to this gloomy reality: let's not sell to strangers, but rather share as humans. Let's adopt a mindful shift from rent-seeking to gift-giving. Let's inject a sense of playfulness into both the mundane of everyday and the important innovations of our era. Let's appreciate that decoupling work from identity means not identifying with it.

On another positive note, I think there's some special serendipity that happens when selfless and mission-aligned individuals are left to their own devices. As digitalized & decentralized as Web3 aims to be, the takeaway is that real change bubbles up from intentional evergreen dialogues between individuals. Humans represent Layer 0 in a blockchain world. This is the vision of becoming true web architects, striving to revolutionize ways of working, interacting, and living. Put differently, and more eloquently: value beyond instrumentalization.

I really do enjoy contributing to environments that prioritize aspiration over transaction — here's to more sharing space and less selling face.

Published by Sam (samwong) 7 months ago on Saturday the 9th of October 2021.

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