Discovering My Self on a Car Lot
My officemate called it the “help me” squeak—the shrill, piercing noise my desk chair made each time I leaned back in it. It was the kind of noise only a decades-old swivel chair could make as it shrieked at having yet another therapist burden its decrepit frame.
As much as I hated that chair, assigned to me by the agency, I empathized with it, as only a good Rogerian therapist could do. I felt about as worn out and on the verge of collapse as that chair, and every day I sat in it, I wished someone would help me, too. Hour after hour, I’d do my best to offer the suffering people who filed in and out my office some kind of emotional relief—and then I’d slump in front of the computer to complete an ever-growing lineup of required documentation, which would take up more and more of each client’s session, as well as my evenings.
Like most of us, I started graduate school with grand visions of what it meant to be a therapist—and I was passionate about becoming a great one. I poured myself into every book I could get my hands on, learned all the latest techniques, and drove for hours to attend trainings with the “gurus” of the field. I even signed up to participate in one of the now famous hand-holding studies at UVA’s Affective Neuroscience Lab, where they put me in an fMRI tube while randomly delivering an electric shock to my ankle to see what my brain did while holding the hands of a loved one and then a stranger. I was all in.
But after grad school, my career at the agency was anything but grand. In my expanding roles, I was doing less and less psychotherapy with clients and attending more and more meetings with administrators, who required more and more paperwork to be filled out. Being a therapist, I kept thinking, wasn’t what I thought it’d be. Inwardly, I fumed over the growing administrative slog and the dwindling amount of time I got to spend helping people in the ways I’d been trained to do. Outwardly, I maintained my professional veneer of dedication and enthusiasm—and I was rewarded for it. But as I repeatedly convinced myself that getting promoted was the right thing to do, I moved further away from the joy I once found in practicing psychotherapy.
Eventually, I began to feel a mounting sense of panic that maybe I’d chosen the wrong profession. Maybe being a therapist wasn’t for me. I lived like this for more than five years, until one morning, after moving yet again into a higher agency position that was even less fulfilling, I couldn’t do it anymore. The pit in my stomach had grown too deep, too large. All this time, I’d been telling myself that if I just fell in line and climbed the agency ladder, things would get better—and somehow I’d feel better.
But I didn’t feel better. In fact, getting ready for work that morning, I felt like I wanted to throw up. I knew I needed to make a change, but I had no idea what it should be. I’d invested so much time and energy in my training, my license, my work, and these promotions. The dread of starting over somewhere else or in some other field was almost as strong as the dread of staying where I was for one more day.
Making a Deal
As I drove to work that day, I found myself fixated by a beaming Hyundai sign that loomed large over a brightly lit lot of new and used cars. I’d seen it a thousand times, but this time it called to me.
Immediately, I questioned myself: Selling cars? That’s ridiculous! The whole idea felt a bit embarrassing. What would I tell my friends and family? That I was just a washed-up counselor who couldn’t hack it? What if a client came to buy a car? Would I look like a failure?
Still, I recognized that in this moment of desperation, I was being presented with a choice. I needed a break—and the thought of doing something that didn’t require being responsible for the emotional well-being of others seemed refreshing. As a salesman, the only thing I’d have to concern myself with in my customers’ private lives was their credit score. So I left my job at the agency, and two weeks later I was selling cars.
The dealership wasn’t glamorous, but the car lot ended up being just the sabbatical from therapy that I needed. Even though the job entailed long hours and getting cussed at by customers on a near daily basis, in a strange way, it gave my mind a much-needed rest.
To my surprise, I also found a community of salespeople there who, despite their crude language and fascination with childish pranks, were hardworking and accepting. You have to work hard in the car business or you don’t get paid. Despite all the caricatures painting them as lazy con artists, the people I worked with were dedicated and good natured, even as they faced ever-lowering commissions and increasing pressures from supervisors to close deals. Many had families, and I watched as they’d miss birthdays, family gatherings, and entire weekends to be at the dealership to sell one more car, so they could take better care of their loved ones.
For me, the car lot became a place to spend time with people who knew how to take life easy. We spent the slow days watching stupid videos on the internet, making fun of each other, and playing football amid shiny new cars that served as our defensive linemen.
Most importantly, selling cars helped me remember something about myself I’d long since buried and forgotten. Without the sheen of my diplomas and the veneration that often comes from being recognized as an expert in a position of authority, I had to face myself in a way I hadn’t in some time.
At the dealership, no one cared that I was a licensed mental health professional with a bunch of certifications to my name. Instead, I was just another salesman, and it turns out that all those trappings I’d surrounded myself with had been covering over some deeply held insecurities that needed to be laid bare. Joseph Campbell, the famous literary professor, talked about how the real hero’s journey involves letting go of the need to perfect yourself. Very often, that journey begins with a descent into humility; and I think the time I spent selling cars offered that to me.
Despite my many shortcomings as a car salesman, the job ended up being just what I needed. It entailed a lot of walking outside, which felt great after so many years working from a chair. I started sleeping better, and it turns out that talking to customers about last night’s baseball game, rather than their most excruciating memories, helped clear my mind. Eventually, that pit in my stomach went away.
Many of my mentors in the therapy field were prolific authors and trainers, but my mentor on the car lot was a man of few words we called Lolo. While a lot of the veteran salespeople took pleasure in picking on me at first, Lolo took me under his wing. He’d been in the car business for more than 40 years. The first car he sold fresh out of high school was a 1978 Chevrolet Camaro for a commission of $100. The stories of his sales over the years were so well known that they’d become like biblical parables.
One time, I really screwed up a sale and the customers walked out angry, never to return. My coworkers made no secret about their delight in watching this rookie fail. I was so upset that I paced the lot for over an hour by myself, ignoring every customer who walked in. When I came back, Lolo walked over to my desk, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “They’re only laughing at themselves. I’ve watched them all do the same thing. After today, I don’t ever want to hear you talk about it again.” He ended with a typical Lolo proverb: “Learn it today; live it tomorrow.” Not dwelling on my mistakes, but living by the lessons they taught me, would prove to be valuable advice, even off the lot.
Once, I fought with Lolo over a used car that I thought shouldn’t be on our lot—a piece of junk that, while cheap, needed several repairs. By then, I’d taken to the job and cared about the dealership. It mattered to me that when people came to check out this car after seeing the listing online, they were always disappointed. Registering my complaint, but without even looking up from the spreadsheet on his desk, he just shook his head and said, “Zach, in the car business we like to say, ‘There’s an ass for every seat, and there’s a seat for every ass.’ You might not love that car, but someone will.”
He was right—someone bought that car, did a little work to it, and used it for quick commutes back and forth to his office. It was exactly what he’d been looking for.
Finishing the Deal
After seven months in the car business, I was ready to head back to my professional home in the world of counseling. Except this time felt different: I was different.
I joined a small group practice, leased an office, pulled in an old desk from my spare bedroom, and finally got a comfy chair that didn’t squeak every time I leaned back in it. It wasn’t anything to look at—just an old, brown, faux-leather chair that had a rip in one of the seams—but it was mine, and I felt good in it.
The car business wasn’t glamorous, but it offered me a kind of therapeutic experience that I’m not sure I could’ve gotten anywhere else. My fellow salespeople helped me recognize the ways I’d lost my authentic self to play the role of therapist, and then they helped me find that self again.
I often think about what Lolo said—about there being a seat for everyone. And I think in that first part of my career that I was simply in the wrong chair. Finally, I’d found the right one for me, at least for now, and I intended to help every client that walked through my door find where they belonged as well.
PHOTO © ERIK RANK/PHOTONICA COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGERSInwardly
PHOTO © iStock.yellowsarah
Earn CE Credits
Just for reading the Networker!