Selling Should Be Like Breathing

When I was a child in Hong Kong, my father was a wholesaler and importer of luggage and my mother ran a store whose offerings ranged from women’s underwear to toys to toilet paper to Pond’s Cold Cream. I grew up in the store selling anything to anyone who wandered in. This retail upbringing, in hindsight, trained me as a salesman without my knowing it.

As a teenager, I wanted to be a scholar. No member of my family had ever gone to college. I was able to win admission to the University of Hong Kong, which accepted only a tiny fraction of those who sought entrance. Later, I got into the University of Chicago, got my master’s degree and then went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and obtained my PhD. All these degrees were very important in terms of training me how to write, read, think, imagine, articulate, and compete.

But it was my parents’ store that best prepared me for the life I now lead. To succeed on your own, you must learn how to sell. You must convince people that you are the answer to their problems, that you have the knowledge and skill that will help them reach their goal.

It’s easier to sell a product than it is to sell your own services. Telling people how good you are feels immodest, even aggressive. And it’s easy to communicate any discomfort to those you’re trying to convince. Yet you have no choice but to learn to sell. For those who’ve made their vows to stop being corporate courtiers and become wandering warriors of capitalism, selling should be a reflex.

In the beginning, we might sell just a little too aggressively. Our eyes are open a bit too wide, our voices are strident, our faces stiff. We are too self-conscious about selling ourselves.

It’s important to remember that you’re not truly selling yourself, but rather the help you can offer, the solutions you can provide. In a way, it’s just as if you’re selling face creams or mousetraps. What you have to offer is something you know will do the job. The product you’re selling is not who you truly are, but rather the job you can do. Separating yourself from the service or product you offer makes it easier to accept rejection. If people don’t buy, it’s not because you’re a bad person. Rather, it’s because they don’t think they need what you are offering. If you were a better salesperson, you might have convinced them otherwise. But just because you didn’t doesn’t mean you’re a less worthy person. Once you understand that, you can relax while you’re selling, which will probably make you more effective.

This is easy to say, difficult to achieve. Don’t lose heart. It all comes with practice. I now know that when I began, people probably thought I was a nuisance and a charlatan. But I have had the opportunity over the years to prove to many clients―and to myself―that I can accomplish what I promise. My mere survival has prompted people to look at me differently. People who once showed disdain toward me began to show respect. They even started to like me. To my great surprise, they have come to consider me a guru.

In essence, if you fight a hundred battles, you may not be the boldest or bravest warrior; but at least you have shown that you are skilled enough to survive. And if you endure over time, and maintain your self-respect, you will win the respect of others. You will prevail.


James Chan, Ph.D., is president of Asia Marketing and Management (AMM), a Philadelphia-based consultancy specialized in advising U.S. firms on exporting American-made products and services to China and forging business relationships there. Since he founded his practice in 1983, James Chan has advised more than 100 U.S. companies in expanding their businesses in Asia. To view his background online, go to

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