Thomas Edison as Life Insurance Salesman

by Site Author

Selling life insurance is grueling. The salesperson approaches dozens of potential customers before one finally agrees to buy life insurance. So the salesperson has to go from pitch to pitch, somehow keeping their spirits up even though they are constantly turned down.

As a result, 58 percent of insurance sales agents drop out of the business before the end of their first year. In the mid-1980s, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company realized that it was losing millions of dollars by training salespeople who quit after only a few months. The company wanted to better predict which sales agents would succeed.

To do so, the firm approached Martin Seligman, the now-famous psychologist. Seligman gave a class of aspiring insurance sales agents a battery of psychological exams. He then searched through the data to find which attributes of salespeople best predict longevity and success.

Seligman found one key predictor of success: the more optimistic a salesperson, the more likely they are to be successful. Optimistic salespeople sold 37 percent more life insurance, and were half as likely to quit.

After thinking about it for a while, Seligman realized that the association between optimism and success made sense. If a salesperson is going to be turned down over and over again, the only way they wont quit is if they can hold onto the belief that their next pitch will convert into a sale.

In my research, I face a similar challenge. I go through research ideas by the dozen, and most lead to nothing. But for every hundred ideas, I end up with one decent paper. The hard part is to persevere despite the constant failure, to see failure as part of the process.

Perhaps the most famous example is Thomas Edison. According to legend, Edison worked through 10,000 prototypes of light bulbs. After each prototype failed, he changed the filament, the type of glass, the voltage. When asked why he hadn’t given up, Edison said: “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

Thomas Edison, needless to say, was an optimist.