Dan Ymas

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You Have To Sell To Succeed––Here Are 3 Ways To Get Over The Fear


Man jumping off a cliff into the ocean
Photo by Austin Neill.

There is no profession in this world as hated as that of the salesman.

The mere sound of the word––salesman––causes us to wrinkle our nose as if at a putrid smell and bombards us with a slew of negative connotations––sleazy, pushy, grubby, dishonest. Bad experiences we've had in the past flood our brains and we are tempted to spit on the ground––"tfoo!"––in disgust.

This, at least, is how I feel. I don't like being sold to and I absolutely hate selling.

Part of this aversion to selling comes from my being an introvert. Even friendly conversation with a stranger will get me sweating, never mind having to convince this stranger to part with their hard-earned money.

But the bigger reason, I think, is that selling is an inherently vulnerable activity. Selling, to me, means putting yourself out there. It means facing rejection and ridicule. It means being at the whim of the buyer.

And this fear and aversion are greatly magnified if what you're selling is something of your own creation. When selling something made by someone else, you at least have another person to blame––"This thing is crap. Of course I can't sell it––nobody wants it."

But this safety valve is gone when the creation is your own. There's no one else to blame.

When thought of in this way, selling our work means courting the deepest and most personal type of rejection––the rejection of our work, which we see as extensions of ourselves.

This is why so many creators––artists, writers, musicians, designers, inventors, etc.––refuse to sell.

Unfortunately, though, by refusing to sell, the creator is refusing to make her work known and so refusing to succeed.


I'm using "succeed" here in the sense of "The fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect or fame", though this, to be sure, is only one of the many forms "success" can take.

History is littered with brilliant creators who died penniless and downtrodden due to their refusal or inability to sell.

Van Gogh, a famous example, is claimed to have sold only one painting during his lifetime. Yet in the years since his death, his paintings have sold for over $900 million, a figure which does not include many of his most famous works, such as The Starry Night.

Vincent Van Gogh's, The Starry Night

Vincent Van Gogh's The Starry Night, via Wikimedia Commons.

Franz Kafka, the now well-known writer, is another example.

So great was Kafka's aversion to selling, so great his belief that he was mentally repulsive, that he said the following to his friend Max Brod in a letter discovered in his desk after his death:

Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me ... in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others'), sketches, and so on, to be burned unread.

Brod disregarded Kafka's request and in the years since Kafka has become incredibly popular. His books have sold millions of copies and his handwritten manuscript of The Trial was sold for $1.98 million.

The examples of Van Gogh and Kafka, among many others, prove that creating––no matter how brilliant the creator or how brilliant the work––is not enough. Selling is unavoidable if your work is to be known.

But, as we covered earlier, the act of selling is fraught with peril. Rejection and ridicule are inescapable side effects.

So what is an artist with a finished work in his hands to do?

She must get over her fear and sell, sell, and then sell some more.

And how does she get over the fear?

By changing her mindset.

Here are three small mindset shifts I've found useful as I work on getting over my own grumblings about promoting my first novel:

1. Tell yourself, “This is good not only for me financially, but also good for the public!"

I knew another reason for their reluctance to send me on a PR tour was that very few actors like to sell. I’d seen the same thing with authors in the book business. The typical attitude seemed to be, “I don’t want to be a whore. I create; I don’t want to shill. I’m not into the money thing at all.”

It was a real change when I showed up saying, “Let’s go everywhere, because this is good not only for me financially but also good for the public; they get to see a good movie!"

You've worked hard on your creation.

You're not trying to peddle crap and you're not trying to take anyone for a ride.

You truly believe your work has a chance at making a positive impact, even if minute, on someone's life.

So every time that little voice in your head tells you that you're bothering people by promoting your work, that you're a money-seeking shill and a fame-thirsty hack, channel your inner Arnold and tell yourself, "This is good not only for me financially, but also good for the public; they get to <see/read/hear> a good <video/book/song>!"

Then go out there and promote and sell with a clear conscience.

Here are three more quotes on the subject of selling I highlighted while reading Arnold's Total Recall:

I saw myself as a businessman first. Too many actors, writers, and artists think that marketing is beneath them. But no matter what you do in life, selling is part of it. You can’t make movies without money.

Whenever I finished filming a movie, I felt my job was only half done. Every film had to be nurtured in the marketplace. You can have the greatest movie in the world, but if you don’t get it out there, if people don’t know about it, you have nothing. It’s the same with poetry, with painting, with writing, with inventions.

People can be great poets, great writers, geniuses in the lab. But you can do the finest work and if people don’t know, you have nothing!

2. See your work as an experiment

Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.

Our brain is great at tricking us into thinking that our mistakes and failures are final. No refunds, no exchanges.

If I don't get this book launch right, the book won't sell. If the book doesn't sell I'll be a failure and the past two years will have been a waste.

Choosing to see everything I do as an experiment, however, exposes the absurdity of these thoughts.


Because experiments never fail. At the end of an experiment, regardless of the result, you always learn something that you can use in your next experiment.

If I mess up the book launch or if the book doesn't sell, then I learned what not to do for next time. The key phrase here being "next time"––there's no failure and no finality, only an experiment that didn't go as planned.

And so every day I tell myself: I'm currently playing at being a writer and this book is the result of that. Let's see how this experiment goes.

3. Remember the Stoics

Bear in mind that everything that exists is already fraying at the edges and in transition, subject to fragmentation and to rot. Or that everything was born to die.

There are two Stoic practices that I've found helpful when it comes to convincing myself to do something that scares me.

These are:

  1. Engaging in negative visualization.
  2. Focusing on the things I can control and ignoring those I can't.

Let's go over and lay out some examples for each of these.

Negative visualization is the practice of asking yourself, "What is the worst that can happen?" and then meditating on the scenarios you come up with.

When it comes to selling my book, here are some of the worst-case scenarios I come up with:

  • My friends will ridicule me or my book or refuse to buy a copy.
  • Strangers will ridicule me or my book or refuse to buy a copy.
  • People will think I'm annoying or money-seeking.
  • I'll sell an embarrassingly low number of copies and I'll feel like a failure.

And once I've let these worst-case scenarios sink in, I ponder on them:

  • A friend ridiculed me or my book. Ouch. My skin is buzzing and for a second I feel very weak. Then I think, so what? Either he wasn't really my friend and, if so, good riddance, or he is trying to help me out in his own, potentially misguided, way and I should be flattered.
  • A stranger ridiculed me or my book. Yes, it stings. But a second later, I realize, who cares? I don't know her and she doesn't know me. Why should I concern myself with what some rando thinks? I often ridicule people in my head without meaning them harm. The stranger stopped thinking about me the second after the ridicule. I should do the same.
  • A friend or stranger refused to buy a copy. That's not that bad, is it? I refuse to buy things all the time and not because I don't like the seller but because I don't want or need what they're selling. I've lost nothing with my attempt.
  • Someone called me annoying. That's embarrassing and I'm angry. But wait, maybe I really am being annoying. Perhaps there's a better way to promote the book. This is good. I'm learning.
  • Someone called me a money-seeking hack. Again I'm embarrassed and angry. But hey, I am trying to sell. Selling involves an exchange of money for a good. And so I am seeking money. This wasn't an insult but a description of what I'm doing. It's up to me how I interpret the description.
  • I sold only ten copies of my book, including the four copies my parents bought. It's a bummer and I'm sad. But maybe it's not a failure. I wrote a book. That in itself is an accomplishment. Now I can write another. And maybe this one will sell better. I get to choose what I consider a failure.

Thinking through all these worst-case scenarios on a daily basis is like taking a vaccine, to borrow the analogy from William B. Irvine. By exposing ourselves to imaginary 'calamities', we ready ourselves to better respond to actual hardships when they come to pass.

The second Stoic practice I find helpful is working hard to focus only on what I can control.

There's plenty I can control when it comes to my book.

I can control how many hours I spend writing and editing it, I can control how much time I spend studying how other authors sell their books, and I can control how hard I work to promote it.

But there's much more I can't control.

I can't control how many copies end up getting sold, I can't control how high in Amazon's rankings the book shows up, I can't control what someone thinks of me or the book, and I can't control if someone decides to leave a one-star review.

And since I can't control any of these things, why should I worry about them? My worry will have no effect on these matters and will only serve to make me miserable.

These two practices help me reshape my fear into a more manageable form and I've been using them so often over the past couple of weeks that I've turned them into two (somewhat silly) breathing exercises:

  • Breathe in and imagine all the things that could go wrong. Breathe out and realize that life will go on regardless.
  • Breathe in and feel the anxiety of knowing that there are a thousand and one things out of your control. Breathe out and refocus your energies on the many things that are in your control.

The ultimate goal of all three of these mindset shifts is to get me out of my head and remind me of both my impermanence and my insignificance.

Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both.

The more I ruminate on my fear of selling, the clearer I see that:

  1. Everybody wants their work to sell, but, either due to fear of failure or fear of what others might say, nobody wants to do the "dirty" work of selling it.
  2. An experiment can't fail.
  3. All the negative outcomes and hurtful words I can imagine end up amounting to small, temporary inconveniences.

And, finally, that I am a speck living on an almost infinitely larger, yet still cosmically tiny, orb, alive for only a blink of time.

And because of all this, I've got no good reason not to take this finished work and sell, sell, sell.