About 5 years ago I felt really stuck in my personal and creative life (this seems to be a reoccurring theme for me). I was feeling frustrated in my relationship as I was entering my late 30s and I’d reached a breaking point with my boyfriend’s commitment issues. I had a couple of old beagles who were like my kids, but I was ready to move beyond fur-baby motherhood. I knew I couldn’t control him, although believe me, I tried, and needed a new outlet just for me. I decided to do something a little crazy for a woman who had a full-time business to run and applied for a job as an entry-level sales associate at West Elm.
First, let me just say that the idea of standing around talking to strangers is my idea of The Worst. I am not a naturally chatty kind of person, and am definitely an introvert. I I hadn’t punched a time clock in close to 20 years and now and was used to work environments where I could come and go–basically the opposite of retail. But, I LOVE West Elm and their aesthetic, wasn’t mad at the employee discount, and wanted a new way to fill my free time.
I had never worked in a retail environment before so it was fascinating being on the other side of things. Just from a consumer standpoint, I loved seeing what it meant to “check if we have it in the back,” and the little marketer in me poured over the merchandising guides and brand requirement sent from corporate. West Elm is owned by Williams Sonoma (along with Pottery Barn, Rejuvenation, and , and they are a lovely company and well-oiled machine. R
The sales training I received there helped me greatly both personally and professionally. Again, I am naturally reserved, so approaching a shopper and striking up a conversation did not come naturally. But, since it was my job I learned how to do it, and with practice it became easier. I learned tricks and conversation starters that still felt true to me, and worked with customers the way I like to be treated.
This is also where I got to put a toe into designing interiors for others. I of course, have always loved decorating my own spaces, but spending other people’s money, is way more fun. Having an entire showroom of merchandise to work with brought to life some childhood fantasies, of playing ‘store.’ I learned how to quickly assess what a customer was looking for, what their style was and ultimately turn their space into something they loved. You sometimes only have a few moments to make a sale, so I learned how to think fast on my feet.
So what’s the moral of the story? Be a beginner. Get over yourself and feel silly and exposed–we grow when we are distressed. We spend the first part of our adulthood building our skills and trying to be an expert in something, but then I think most of us plateau. There is nothing like getting out of your comfort zone to gain new perspectives, its how we became experts in the first place. I absolutely hate being vulnerable and feeling dumb just like everybody else, but every time I put myself in a situation where I’m a newbie, I learn a great deal. It always helps me to just be honest when I’m learning something, others tend to give you more of abreak. I’ll never forget my college bestie got a seasonal job at Mervyn’s (remember Mervyn’s!?) and they made her where this huge button that said “I’m New and I’m Learning.” We all laughed our asses off when we saw it (the great friends that we are), but it worked to explain why she wasn’t as fast as the other employees.
You don’t need to go get a second job, there are tons of ways to be a beginner.
Take a class
This is an easy one. Take a class in something new–yoga, golf lessons, knitting, half marathon training, a writing workshop. I’ve done all of these and have a list of about a million more I want to try.
If you can afford it, go on an adventure. Especially to a place where you don’t speak the language, and need to figure out public transportation. To me travel is so inspiring and necessary, and I don’t do it enough.
Join a group
In a story similar to the above, I brought CreativeMornings to Sacramento last December. It has been beyond inspiring and so critical to my happiness this year. So find a similar event series to start attending, better yet, volunteer somewhere! Helping others is the best way to make yourself feel better and there are so many places that need your brand of expertise and help.
After a couple of years at West Elm, I made some great friends, talked to super interesting people in the community and my house looked damn good. I’m not sure how related it all is, but my the boyfriend wised up, we got pregnant, married, and life changed dramatically once again. Getting out of my own head and helping others (even by selling them stuff) really pulled me out of my funk and led to much greater things.