On New Year’s Eve 1971 I realized that it was time for a major change in my life. For the previous 2 ½ years I had been living communally. But now it was time to leave my hippy family and venture out into the world.
Soon after the first of the year I picked up a newspaper and looked in the want ads. The only job I found that sounded interesting and possible for me to get ended up being a job selling Encyclopedias door to door. The job wasn’t described as “selling encyclopedias” it had a much more flowery description.
I went through the training, learning how to look for customers by driving around neighborhoods and finding houses with lots of toys in the back yard, easy “marks”. The only neighborhoods that we searched were less than middle class. Working people who had young families.
Of course, we were not “selling” encyclopedias we were looking for “the right” families to accept into our education program. The families had to be ones that wanted a good education for their kids, who were willing to sacrifice the cost of a pack of cigarettes a day in order to provide their children with the resources needed to succeed in life.
In order to be able to find “a lucky” family it would require many doors being slammed in my face. And so, required an inner fortitude to face continuous rejection. At the time, I was reading Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich,” which was one of the earliest self-help books. He described 13 principles to be mastered: desire, faith, auto-suggestion, specialized knowledge, imagination, organized planning, decision, persistence, the power of the master mind, the mystery of sex transmutation, the subconscious mind, the brain and the sixth sense. And I used to carry around a piece of paper folded in my wallet to be pulled out in those dark moments of rejection. On the paper I had drawn a picture of a boot and I would look at the boot and recite, “This is the boot my subconscious wears, this is the boot that conquers my fears. When I get my mind in a negative rut, this is the boot that gives me a swift kick in the butt.” It always managed to lighten my mood.
I did this work in Kansas City, MO; Omaha, NE; Tulsa, OK, and finally in Atlanta, GA. After some time of accepting innocent families, I could no longer continue in good conscience. After revealing my misgivings to my supervisor, he suggested that I go and pay a visit to one of the families after they had received their set of books, which I did. The husband and wife were so happy to see me and very proud of their bookshelf with the full set of encyclopedias on display. They thanked me again for “accepting” them into the program.
After that I began to train others to do the work. One step removed and the conscience was not so burdened.
On my last stop, Atlanta, I walked into the first waterbed store I had ever seen and decided in that moment I would return to Kansas City and open my own. I thought if I am going to sell, I liked the waterbed moto better, “There are two things that are better on a waterbed. And one of them is sleep.”
A couple of things that I learned from this experience:
The first and most obvious is how easy it is to manipulate people. You just have to find their “hook.” In this case it was the family wanting their children to have a better life than they had.
The second was even if someone is manipulated, because they are ignorant of the fact, for them their experience is not a bad thing.
And thirdly I learned a lot about how my mind works, and by watching its workings it lost some of its power over me.
You may wonder why I am writing this now.
Because it is so easy to see how people, and even some of my friends, are being manipulated by their own predilections, their own “hooks.” It is always based in some truth for example for the encyclopedia families, it was wanting the best for their children, for others it may be, liberty, freedom, or anti-establishment, “anti-corporatism,” socialism, or fear of the unknown.
This is how “fake news” and false information were spread in the 2016 election, the Brexit debate and again today leading up to the 2020 U.S. election. It is also at the heart of conspiracy theories being circulated. People see their hook and share without even checking the sources or information.
And the thing is, if you visit those people who have been manipulated, they will proudly display their full set of encyclopedias that they have been struggling to pay for each month.
More from the collected and uncollected posts of Prem Purushottama.