Message to Millennials: Embrace Failure

merchandising insights

I squeaked through the public elementary and high school system during a time when it was still socially and culturally acceptable to win—and to lose—competitions like footraces, softball games, rope climbing, and spelling bees. Teachers still graded papers with embarrassingly bright red markers, highlighting areas needing improvement. At the time, the practice was also to announce the good or poor grades very publicly from the front of the classroom, handing back one paper at a time—to alternately proud or ashamed students—so everyone in class wound up knowing how every other kid was doing. I can remember being embarrassed more than once.

Abusive, you say? Nyet. Although I would have preferred the admiration of my classmates, I also realized in that moment—meaning somewhere silently in my consciousness—that in order to receive the esteem of my peers, I would have had to turn in better work. I also immediately knew—again on some unspeaking level of consciousness—that my teacher was right; the grade I got was a pretty accurate reflection of the amount of effort I had put in, and that—if I were honest with myself—was not that much.

Did this public humiliation damage me for life? Perhaps this is a question for others to answer. Did my failure make me change my attitude toward school and become a more diligent student? No. I was willing to live with the consequences of making only a mediocre effort in my studies, applying myself with abandon instead to riding my bike after school, skimming rocks on the pond, and basically being a kid. People in my young life, mostly teachers and administrators during my elementary school years, more than once took me aside to say something like, “Jay, you have so much potential, if you would only apply yourself.” This approach did not work. I wasn’t convinced of the value I would get in return for better scholarship. What I did understand very clearly, though, is that my grades, my status as a student, were the direct result of my own choices and the amount of energy I was willing to devote to school. Conditional fail.

Hospitality, Southern and Yankee Style
At one point while in the natural foods wholesale distribution business, I was responsible for sales from Virginia to New England. Making sales calls throughout this territory gave me a first-hand education in some of the cultural differences that exist in our society. Here’s a hint: try doing an internet search for “New York hospitality.” The first relevant entry you’ll find is, “Southern hospitality.” In other words, we Yanks aren’t known for our warm, welcoming style.

But New Yorkers are also misunderstood. That brash, gruff exterior is usually a thin shield for the soft heart that lies beating just beneath the surface. Yes, New Yorkers do have empathy, humanity, grace, kindness. Here’s how I know. When calling on New York City natural products retailers for the distribution company, we would never make appointments—you’d rarely get one if you tried, so we just walked in, sample bag in hand, hoping for a meeting.

After intentionally ignoring you for 10, 15 minutes, maybe even a half-hour, the frantically busy store buyer would finally acknowledge you; you having successfully passed the first test of perseverance. Now, walking over, unsmiling, stone-cold eyes locking onto you for the first time, while you stand awkwardly in the middle of a busy aisle, comes the rapid-fire one-sentence challenge: “Yeah, what can I do for you?” At this point, you’ve got to be ready to launch immediately into your pitch because you’re only getting one, 30-second shot to make a meaningful, engaging impression. Otherwise, it’s out the door for you, and it will be at least twice as hard next time to get an audience, assuming you have the guts to try again.

Fortunately, we had a lot of practice making cold calls, and within 15 or 20 seconds, the stony-faced buyer was holding two or three new product samples in his [while there were some non-male managers, they were in the minority] hands, expressing a cool but warming interest in product attributes such as ingredients, taste and finally, price. “How many of these do I have to take?” Now, if your answer was unacceptable on price, case pack, or minimum wholesale order for truck delivery, or if your delivery day was a conflict, or if any number of other obstacles to opening an account got in the way, you’d know right away what those obstacles were. Maybe you walked out of the store without an order that day, but you also knew exactly what you needed to do to have a shot at getting the business. This is the heart of the New Yorker: you may not please me, but I’ll tell you exactly where you stand. Conditional fail.

Contrast this with my experience Down South. Calling on natural products retailers was usually a much lower pressure experience. The stores were still busy, and arriving cold without an appointment required managers to make unexpected adjustments to their schedules. But, within a few minutes, you were usually standing in front of the buyer, usually at their desk or some other comfortable out-of-the-way area of the store, with their seemingly full and enthusiastic attention.

You’d get to go through your entire bag of samples, tasting and gifting each one to nods of approval and encouraging words, show the catalog and monthly specials, discuss delivery days and order deadlines. At the end of which, the buyer would say something like, “Well, we certainly appreciate you coming in and making us aware of your company, and I think you have a lot of great things to offer that we can take advantage of. We will discuss this and let you know.” No objections. No apparent barriers to doing business. But also no real information.

It wasn’t until you followed up in a few days or a week that reality set in. Often, the buyer was “too busy” to take your phone call. If you returned to the store in person, the welcome you got was a notch or two cooler, the wait to see the buyer a small but noticeable bit longer. Then, when face to face, you might hear something like, “We took a look at your program and have decided we are not going to take advantage of it at this time.” You thought you had won—got a trophy for showing up. But, no. Unconditional fail.
These examples illustrate a tendency, not a certainty and I have met candid Southerners and glib Northerners, but the point remains.

Why your teachers owe you an apology
In an effort to shield young people from failure, our society has embraced the idea that everyone deserves recognition. Show up, get a trophy. Because you exist, you win an award. Look up the dictionary definition of “deserve” however, and you’ll find the concept of “earn, to gain or get through one’s labor or service.”

New evidence suggests that, rather than shield the newborn’s immune system from “germs,” bacteria and the like, the healthy microbiome requires a good dose of dirt to gain the full spectrum of bacteria to effectively respond to pathogens. Turns out, there’s a biological survival reason toddlers spontaneously put everything into their mouths. By sanitizing the living environment, we actually are depriving the body of the bacterial ammunition it needs to build a lifelong defense system. Through our good intentions, we are likely weakening the body, making it more susceptible to chronic conditions such as crohn’s disease, type 2 diabetes, lupus, and autism.

In the same way, by “sanitizing” the life experiences of young people—postponing failure—we are likely impairing the ability to cope with the real world.

“I can’t cope.”
Several recent conversations I’ve had with independent natural products retailers from around the country are strikingly similar. The Millennial employee is incapable of consistently arriving on time, is stressed out by routine daily duties and needs to work on intermittent days. Because my retailer friends operate across all U.S. regions, it appears we have a universal, generational set of unhealthy traits.

If I were a Millennial, perhaps I too would see the logic in conserving my energy and refusing to physically exert myself for mere hourly wages, when many of my peers get millions of dollars’ worth of equity stock options and six-figure paychecks for simply tapping on a computer keyboard.

I do not assume that my comments will move any Millennial reading this. However, it is my experience that there is pleasure, joy and delight from doing something—anything requiring effort—well. By focusing on and completing a task, however menial, when you’d rather be doing something else, your reward is a truly earned sense of accomplishment when that task is done. You can’t put a dollar value on that.

And, then there’s this: eventually, Millennials will have to take over and run these businesses themselves. I wonder, who would they rather hire to work the front lines, the younger me or themselves? WF

Published in WholeFoods Magazine November 2016

Jay Jacobowitz is president and founder of Retail Merchandising insightsInsights®, a professional consulting service for natural products retailers established in 1998, and creator of Natural Insights for Well Being®, a comprehensive marketing service designed especially for independent natural products retailers. With 39 years of wholesale and retail industry experience, Jay has assisted in developing over 1,000 successful natural products retail stores in the U.S. and abroad. Jay is a popular author, educator, and speaker, and is the merchandising editor of WholeFoods Magazine, for which he writes Merchandising Insights and Tip of the Month. Jay also serves the Natural Products Association in several capacities. Jay will be at Southeast NPA SOHO Expo speaking on Friday, December 2, 2016, 10:15am-11:15am, at the Gaylord Palms convention center and exhibiting on Saturday and Sunday, December 3 and 4, at Booth #307. He can be reached at (800)328-0855 or via e-mail at