The month of February marks my fourth anniversary as a full-time writer. This “record of accomplishment” may seem unremarkable to most of you unless you shared my dreadful work history where I never stayed with any one employer for more than eighteen months and where I was at my last job (2004) for just nine months before getting fired for the fourth and final time, on seven tries. I’m talking about Fortune 100 corporations down to a four-man insurance agency. None of it worked and for the life of me, I didn’t know why. I felt like a complete failure and I quickly saw my life passing me by.
Only after arriving in my late thirties and with several years of writing “under my belt” have I finally come to terms with this “demoralizing” chapter of my life. This 9-year struggle had a devastating impact on my career, finances, health, and marriage while producing untold amounts of misunderstanding and shame in the days following college that left me having to contemplate more schooling (graduate), in the end. Life had stripped me of almost everything that defines one as being human, as being a man. Reality or waking up to reality has been a cruel journey and it couldn’t have cared less. However, I did survive and I am stronger for it. This could’ve easily gone the other way, as it has for so many suffering with an addiction or with a mental illness, or both. I know both.
My track record related to selling goods and services for corporate America was so bad that once I finally slammed the door shut on this form of torture I knew that there would be no going back. What looked so easy for my family and friends to achieve and maintain – long-term employment – eluded me, like, fine sand slipping between my fingers? I tried to keep my head up even as the last bit of confidence had already drained out of my big toe. It’s hard to do any task with any degree of success, such as, going go the next job interview or making another sales call without having one’s mental chest puffed out and for good reason. Success is made all the more difficult when you feel completely lost.
I’ve tried to adhere to my policy of “no return”, ever since. After all, it seemed clear-cut to me leaving little room for doubt or inner debate. I’ve made no real attempts to apply for another job in the corporate world while I was enrolled in school or later as I began this writing endeavor. During periods of “poverty”, I’ve searched online and applied for a small number of jobs related to this field, but nothing that would bring me back to the source of so much confusion and unhappiness. What I experienced during this difficult time I, now, view as being rich, as being good for me. I mean all of it. Without the mental hardships, I would’ve never been able to appreciate or gauge, both, my current personal and professional success as a writer. I’ve been in combat, in hell and I lived to tell about it.
All of my outside sales jobs entailed heavy amounts of “cold calling” and for much of those years I hated every bit of it. I think every salesman does. Not once did a customer, new or old, call me up “out of the blue” with an order ready to place over the telephone or for me to pick-up a waiting check at their office. It never worked that way. Cold calling involved, either, making many outbound phone calls from my office to businesses located in my territory (usually several defined zip codes) or physically canvassing office buildings and office parks for that one new business lead. The activities evoked many fears of direct, personal rejection and failure. It was always an affront to my bullet-riddled character, thin skin and my hollow chest. Frequently, too much time and energy was wasted avoiding, delaying or dancing around this undesirable activity due to the negative emotions it produced and the horror-film-like endings projected in my head even though it rarely materialized. Yes, I was thrown out of numerous offices and I was asked to leave entire buildings, but I always returned another day. I had to.
The ongoing mental wrestling match hardly ever existed between a prospect and me instead, it lie completely within me. I made many cold calls over the years improving my technique and increasing the number of appointments, but success, in terms of getting more sales and commissions, continued to languish. In truth, my performance was a “flat line” by any measure, if plotted on a graph over my tenure. I always knew it wasn’t working out, it never did. I refused to fool myself into thinking otherwise. Idea of getting fired was a constant thought. What were my choices without any identified skills or talents – they seemed very limited? I felt trapped and thus I waited for the ax to drop. My jobs always fell beneath what I thought I deserved thus creating another nagging conflict. I never could or would give into this reality.
In the beginning of my career, I would call on the closes person sitting near the office’s front door often treating them and their words like gospel, like gold. Sometimes what they had to say was valuable, but other times their information or their memory turned out to be wrong. Cowardly, I got out of the building as fast as I walked in.
All the sales reps in my office were encouraged by our general manager to attend a daylong sales seminar held in the ballroom of a downtown Atlanta (GA) hotel. The featured speaker was a four-time “salesman of the year” formerly with a major computer manufacturer. Drawing from his own experience, Tony encouraged the audience to initiate our first sales call within any given organization not with the first person that we laid our eyes on or spoke to over the phone. Not to start with the receptionist or the office manager and work our way up the system’s hierarchical maze, but instead to start with the organization’s top officer and to work our way down. This was a scary idea to me and probably to everyone else listening. What did I have in common with Mr. CEO, Ms. President? It was always safer just to walk into the lobby and to begin asking my standard questions at the first moving object I saw – to write down the contact’s name, their phone number and collect any other facts before leaving.
The seminar’s speaker argued that we, salespeople, actually had more in common with the top executive who, in many cases, was a prior salesman/woman. Most importantly, they were ultimately responsible for the company’s P&L (profit and loss) statement. This responsibility made him or her likely to be more honest than anyone else working in some other capacity and positioned further down the corporate ladder. Part of the speaker’s prescription for improving sales included writing an unorthodox sales letter to the firm’s identified top executive, be it – the CEO, CFO, SVP, President, Managing Partner, Owner… and following it up with a scheduled phone call at a specified date and time, as always noted in the initial correspondence.
While this task was much more challenging on the nerves and the exercise required the discipline to actually follow-up on the letter compared to operating on random cold calling, the letter was targeted. If successful, it would quickly cut down on hours of wasted driving in my territory and my energy while quickly turning an executive into a critical ally while helping me to obtain first hand information on their plans, if any, to make a purchase on the products that I sold. They always and freely provided me with the firm’s contact person responsible for procurement thus making it possible for me to “drop” the executive’s name in my next phone call. Once I saw the value of calling on top executives I never wanted to be seen in “their eyes” as just another salesman who makes lots of empty promises to curry favor while hoping that Mr. Prospect forgets what I said to him or her, the last time we spoke. I cea
sed measuring myself on my good intentions and instead began measuring myself on my actions. This was critical in my development, in my personal transformation.
Developing real follow-through became important to me and I saw it as a reflection of my character instead of doing things well 3, 4 or 5 times out of 10, or 30%, 40% or 50% of the time, I needed to be accomplishing things 8, 9 or 10 times out of 10. The change didn’t occur overnight, but I had become aware of its importance, both, as a person and as a professional. In time, my output slowly improved in part to promising the world less and I soon noticed that I was getting burned much less. (I don’t make any promises to you that I’m not prepared to carry out.) I also began holding myself to a higher standard regarding the things that I could control. Quality, values mattered. As personal values developed rarely did I deviate from them unless while working in hostile environments where pressure and stress were great, job security seemed low and my morals weren’t shared.
What left me always feelings insecure when selling building products, photocopiers and fax machines, payroll services and commercial insurance had unknowingly served as a real proving ground, a rite of passage strengthening me along the way to where I, now, peddle my experiences, insights and wisdom (ideas) to the world? Mental illness struck me down (and hard), it struck down my reputation, my career, everything. My five-year recovery included a few bouts of mania/psychosis. It forced me to face my fears, which led to me growing beyond my own limitations to, ultimately, find my freedom and happiness. In 2007-08, excellence and success as a thinker and writer were slowly revealed replacing this mediocre salesman identity; a natural world replaced an artificial one.
The years of cold calling top executives pushing my wares that I neither believed in nor had an interest in selling would finally come in handy as I began sharing my ideas with local attorneys, bankers, business executives, clergy, state and federal judges and lawmakers, major foundations, media, Washington policy institutes, professors and publishers,…with you. Making contact with hundreds and then thousands of professors and professionals has become easy and instinctive, with time. After four years of isolation and unemployment (2002-06), I was finally combining the gift of writing, the love for sharing a spiritual message with the skill for calling on leaders.
What I, now, have to offer is the most expensive product man can sell and few can afford its price tag. Reality, the truth is indeed pricey; its message has cost many people their lives including a few historic figures. It’s with this understanding I gladly share my work and choose to measure my success by something other than annual revenue or the size of my paycheck. Four years of writing has taken me from nervously, sheepishly making my first calls on American-based professors and professionals to, now, reaching out to heads of state, ambassadors, billionaires, former governors, to the most popular internet media site and world-class universities, in ten countries.
With a diverse audience of 6,800 and a high retention rate exceeding 99.8%, I can now write to anyone, living anywhere in the world who just might embrace my message and some who might not. Last summer, I added, both, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to this audience. What has come of it, you ask? Since then I have received seventeen direct hits to my blog from, at least, five different networks, or sources, in Moscow, RU. My work must be making its rounds and earning me some new friends. Well, my bags are packed, my passport is in my shirt pocket and I am just waiting for an invitation to come see all things great in Russia including getting a VIP tour of the Kremlin, most definitely! Only the “mentally ill” can getaway with making such a ridiculous statement as this one. Can’t a man dream?
Today, I frequently discover new prospects from watching TV interviews, from reading op-eds in print or on-line. If I can find their email address then they’re most likely going to hear from me, as you already have. That was the case, over the holidays, where I added Huffington Post co-founder and Editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington, American paleontologist Jack Horner (dyslexic, technical advisor and the inspiration for one of characters in the Jurassic Park film series), Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) President and CEO Paula A. Kerger among others. This writing effort has created two different worlds for me – the one that I live in seven days a week hanging out with common folk and this one that I’ve invented from scratch and that I make contact with every four or five weeks. I have no interest in giving up the world that I live in to embrace the trappings of this new virtual world because I have personally witnessed so much misery and tragedy in the lives of those with similar personalities.
However, the two worlds complement one another very well because I’m the same person with the same set of values, but it’s often hard to explain to my old classmates, friends, neighbors and acquaintances that often see me in their mind as “ill”. They chose to dismiss my sudden success and my miraculous recovery from the grips of mental illness. They see me as some sort of lost cause to fit in their concept of how a mentally ill person should live and act, such as, Jared Lee Loughner, Rep. Gabby Giffords’ failed assassin. At the same time, this audience likely sees me with its own set of “labels”. Is any of it accurate, I don’t know? I’ve come to see myself as being a mystery, but aren’t we all?
In every introduction, I try to give you some “meat on the bone”, fresh information with depth (intimacy) about me and my story. Anything less would be boring. In my previous essay, I revealed a lot of financial information in hopes of getting better participation from this audience in the form of references that I “need” for fellowship applications. I did my part by asking for your help, it doesn’t appear to have worked. Maybe I don’t need a fellowship, after all. Those details were intended to bring us closer together and they were just another slice of my story. To balance it out I want to share with you the following. You may identify with this couple better than you do with me. Maybe you would offer them the help that you’re withholding from me.
As I have previously stated, I was once married (2002). I dated my wife for five years before getting married. My career struggles and later health issues covered the entire 9-year relationship. Our marriage was cut-short due to my bipolar disorder, which it ruined from the outset. The mental illness changed the dynamics of our five-year relationship by throwing the new marriage for a loop. My ex-wife’s (Lisa) parents fought long and hard, during the courtship, to keep me out of their family. From the get go, I was the family’s black sheep and I served as an escape from their own troubles.
As I’ve readily written, I gave them all the ammunition they would need to justify their attitude towards me. For starters, this Virginia couple liked, neither, my honesty nor the troubled home life that I came from – an alcoholic father. My troubled career would be revealed later and it would serve as more fuel for the fire. Once engaged, her parents put up one final barrier to getting married to their last unwed daughter, a sure enough choking hazard – a prenuptial. Poor ol’ me refused their offer, twice. They didn’t expect that from me.
My former father-in-law, a retired physician, is a Yale man, he attended medical school at the University of Virginia (UVA) (both, my ex-wife and her older sister graduated from there) followed by his residency at Duke and then a fellowship at Vanderbilt. In the nine years, that I was in his li
fe struggling with my career and then my illness I never once felt his love or experienced his bedside manner. I never earned his approval and he even told me so (1999). It took me eight years to get over his words and to heal my wounds with the help of my discovery to think and write.
In truth, he’s probably a nice guy, but he was on strict orders to always be curt and difficult with me. Neither he nor his wife ever saw me as being suitable to marry their daughter. In their eyes, my family lacked enough money, power and prestige for their ego’s consumption. In all those years, they had no interest in getting to know me. In their minds, they had heard enough. As an addition to their prominent family, I was a disgrace. I didn’t fit-in with existing window dressing. When my then-wife finally called her parents to say that she was leaving our marriage and coming home they must have thrown the biggest party on the banks of the James River (2006). “Good riddance!” they must have said about me. Given all that you wouldn’t expect the following to be occurring.
It’s been almost four years since my divorce and I’ve developed a secret admirer of my writing via my blog. I’ve been getting hits to my blog for years now from a familiar Virginia town where “my name” is used in the web search coming from a known service provider. Who’s behind it – my former father-in-law? I am the same honest me, but, now, I’ve got talent. I can only imagine what he must be thinking and now says to his wife, to his three daughters and to his friends. I took great pride when I added faculty from Duke, UVA and Yale during the summer of 2008, especially Yale. It’s his old stomping ground, this was personal. The doctor’s periodic visits to my sites have served as some vindication, in my mind – to my character, to my honesty and to my intelligence.
That’s a clean and short-version to a rather long and very ugly one. In the end, this entire experience has made me treat everyone, with class, and no class as equals while looking at this audience in a similar skeptical light that I see my former in-laws in. I think it’s justified. My former in-laws and others like them have nothing I want except for their daughter. Lisa no longer speaks to me.
End of story.
See attachment: Is the whole the sum of its parts? (page 7)
Note: The following link, Don’t turn away from mental illness, is to an op-ed by James F. Walsh, President of NAMI-Alabama (National Alliance on Mental Illness), which appeared in the (Mobile, AL) Press-Register. It was written in response to last month’s Tucson, AZ shooting.
Is the whole the sum of its parts?
February 6, 2011
I read with great interest your essay, which appeared in today’s Press-Register. In 2002, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and I know well the harsh consequences that come with being sick. Out of my breakdown, at the age of 32, came a breakthrough to think and write, exceptionally well. This talent has lifted me off society’s bottom rung and up to the intellectual top, a rare feat.
Once a “C” student, I now share an almost monthly commentary, on political, social and spiritual matters, with a distinguished audience of 6,800 contacts including over 5,000 professors teaching at thirty-two world-class universities (Harvard, Yale, Cambridge, Oxford…), in ten countries, their heads of state and their ambassadors to the U.S. along with many American notables.
My experience with mental illness, it’s stigma within the mental health profession including local agencies, their counselors, doctors and nurses at psych hospitals, jails, probate judges and, most importantly, our Godless society has convinced me that the problem lies not with some of its parts, not with me per se, but with the whole.
It’s not an individual or DNA issue, but rather a social one where personal rejection is so widespread and having any flaws or troubles are considered a liability. We’ve denied our humanity resulting in our neurosis. This is the breeding ground for all insanity. The scope goes well beyond just those diagnosed and “undiagnosed”. It’s an equal opportunity illness that doesn’t discriminate.
Nobody wants a mental illness and thus all those with it are shunned by their families, friends, the mental health field, lawmakers through their actions to inadequately fund the system and by society, in general. Getting this label is a death sentence, for most. They lose their place in society, their jobs, their reputation, their marriages, families and many friendships. It puts you in a box and often defines your every move. The illness introduces you to a new and cruel, poverty-stricken way of life. Few escape from its grip. Keeping the mentally ill in their place is a constant message heard and made by all to make themselves feel better, to feel superior.
Our entire society is insane and sadly few know it or will admit to it, except for those taking their meds! Look at the mess called America, do you think sane people would run up a $14t national debt, cause mass unemployment, nationwide home foreclosures and break the bank — I think not? That’s all irrational behavior, it’s illogical, but who’s calling it like it is? Highly paid, crazy people, wearing their dark suits and ties, caused this crisis in their corporate boardrooms, in Washington and on Wall Street. How many of them got committed for their actions — none? Why, because we’ve defined this conduct as being sane in spite of it almost destroying the U.S. and global banking system.
Mental illness can strike anyone given the right set of pressures and stressors. Spirituality is a major part of the solution, but it’s rarely recognized by those in the mental health field or NAMI who prefer to push pills. Few understand mental illness and thus the success rates reflect it. Lastly, you’ll be surprised to know that NAMI’s national executive director, Michael Fitzpatrick, has been in my audience for several years, now.
Copyright © 2010. All Rights Reserved. “Is the whole the sum of its parts?” by Ted Burnett.
I am available for speaking, consulting and political advising. My other essays can be viewed at my blog – http://www.toxicnation.blogspot.com/. I can be contacted via email at – firstname.lastname@example.org. My biography can be viewed at http://www.tedburnettresume.blogspot.com/.