When I turned eighteen, I got a call from a Marine recruiter. Staff Sergeant Arbuckle told me he’d like to talk to me. I told him okay, because I thought that we were talking—he wanted to meet in person. There’s something in an eighteen year-old guy that doesn’t want to disappoint a Marine, and it felt good to have someone say that they have chosen you specifically. (Which he obviously told to every single person he talked to.) I told my mom that I had a meeting with a Marine recruiter.

Mom: Do you want to go into the Marines?

Me: No, not really.

Mom: Then why didn’t you tell him?

Me: I don’t know…

Mom: You have to call him back and tell him.

Me: What if I just went to the meeting, and then told him there?

Mom: Bart, if you go, you will sign up for the Marines.

She was right—I hated saying no to people. I’m slowly getting better at it. I would have joined the Marines because I didn’t want to hurt this nice Sergeant’s feelings. “Sir, if it would make you happy, sure… I’ll join up! I’ll put aside my desires and do what you would like for my life.”

* * *

When I was nineteen, my friend John talked to me about a juice called MonaVie. It was good juice. You rip a shot of it in the morning and you’re good to go. If you’re really unhealthy, and you have a lot of money, you can take one down in the evening, too. It was made from the acai berry, a small purple miracle rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fairy dust. Remember this berry? Stop traffic! We’ve found it! Nobody knows how to pronounce this freaking thing, but here it is, making its way into our smoothies and chocolate bars and trail mixes and pizza. (Apparently, It’s pronounced “Ah-sigh-ee”.)

Mona Vie, at $37 a bottle, was touted as a cure for whatever ails you. One distributor even said that it could prevent cancer. Oops. (Turns out the FDA says that you actually need to back that up.) I was recovering from a broken neck, and decided to drink the koolaid.

John told me that it was going to be the next big thing. He had distributors under him, so every time they made a sale, he profited from it. How fun is that?! Just get a buncha those people, sit back, and eventually, everyone gets put in jail! In 2008, the phrase pyramid scheme was whispered around the MonaVie coolers, and shouted around the internet, but I had lost interest by this time. I found that if I stopped taking the juice for a couple days, I would catch some kind of cold. So I figured forget it. I liked getting colds the old fashioned way: going to college.

My friend truly believed in the product, and maybe he still does, and who’s to say—maybe it works for him. (For the record, let me say that I like this guy a lot.) He made a super-soft pitch to me. I was the one who asked him about it, he wasn’t pressuring at all. It wasn’t uncomfortable, and he knew that I probably wasn’t into the business side of it. We also had built a report working at the same hockey camp for a week.

(One night the two of us, along with our friend Becca, bonded over five episodes of Dexter. At 3 a.m., when our bender finally ended and I was ready to leave, Becca wouldn’t wake up. We did the soft-wake up, whispering, “Hey, time to wake up. We’re leaving.” Then we tapped her on the shoulder. Then we shook her. Then we took turns yelling “FIRE!” in her ears. Then I grabbed the guitar and started singing, “Wake up, wake up, wake up, there’s a FIRE, FIRE, FIRE!”. We were crying with laughter. Then we checked to make sure she was breathing. She was. Pulse: normal. “Should we call an ambulance?” He took out his phone to call, and she woke up and looked at us like, why are you guys being so weird?)

Even though I became very skeptical of this drink, John’s sale to me was friend to friend, not the polished attack-pitch of so many recruiters.

* * *

A few weeks ago, I went to coffee with my friend to hear about a part-time gig.

After my experience with people trying to convince me to do things, I was skeptical. Mostly because she called me and said she wanted to set up a time to have a phone call about this opportunity. And then she told me that the phone call wasn’t going to be sufficient to explain the company, so we needed to meet in person.

My friend’s friend, whom I don’t know, and whom I don’t feel bad talking about, is a guy in his mid twenties. He was polished, and his presentation involved a notepad, drawing on that notepad, and circling those drawings. He was trained in the three steps. If you Google “three steps sales,” you’ll get a billion results about how to get people to do what you want in three easy steps. Here’s what I’ve learned from the three steps of pressure sales.

1. Make small talk. Tiny talk. “Nice shirt, where’d you get it, I don’t care, I’m trying to quarterback this conversation into my pitch.”

2. Explain the opportunity. He took out a notepad to explain what this company was. Halfway through, he started explaining how it wasn’t a pyramid scheme, by drawing someone at the top of the page. Then he drew three others below that person. Then he connected them with lines. “You work under this person, and you start your own team…” Then he traced a triangle around the figures and then said, “here’s the thing…it’s not a pyramid…”

I don’t have a ton of business experience, but if I’m in a meeting with someone, and they have to draw four pages of diagrams and write buzzwords in groups of three just to explain how their company works, with a supplemental page about how I get paid, I know that it’s not a great opportunity for me. FOR ME, being the key words there.

“Hey Bart, we want you to work with us to develop content for our website.” That makes sense.

You don’t need a notepad to explain that, but you could use one: write my name. Now write the company’s name. Now draw an arrow from my name to the company, and label the arrow, “content.” Now draw an arrow from the company to my name, and label that arrow, “money.”

Within #2, If you are selling a pyrma-sorry-triangle scheme company, you must hit these three:

A. I want to let you know about this opportunity, because it’s going to sweep the universe, and I don’t want you say, “You knew and never told me?!” Fear of missing out. You didn’t know about this company twelve seconds ago, and you’re already behind! Quick! Get on board or you’re going to be obsolete!

B. People are making tons of money! As a salesperson, here’s where you drop your outliers. Look at the person across the table from you. Judge their age. If they are thirty years old, then say this: A girl, working for this company, is now a multi-millionaire. And she’s TWENTY-FIVE YEARS OLD!

This was one used on me when I was nineteen: “This one guy had his high school graduation party and his retirement party… on the same day”.

C. It’s easy—you can do it. Just a few minutes every day and you’ll make tons of money.

3. Don’t give them any time to think.

Guy pitching me: So can we set up a time for you to meet with our mentor? He’s the guy who trained us.

Me: Thanks for telling me about this—I’m going to go home and think about it.

Guy: Great! I encourage that…so does tomorrow work?

That’s the exact opposite of what I want. And it’s just adding to the number of people who I have to say no to.

* * *

This Marine recruiter was just doing his job, but he did it by forcing me into a corner. My friend’s friend was just doing what he had been trained to do. They’ve been told the answers to any possible question that might come up, they pressure, and they three-point you into submission.

The truth is, while I was in the meeting, I thought, I could do this. If everyone else is going to be jumping on board, why not get on early? It was the same with Sergeant Arbuckle. I’m athletic, I could be a Marine, I guess. I bought the MonaVie because I wanted my injured neck to heal faster, and I thought making millions of dollars sounded great. When I left these worlds—when I didn’t buy any more juice, when I called the Marine to tell him no, and when I said no to my friend’s business, it was freedom.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

-Statue of Liberty

(Actually, I ended up saying yes to all of these. Which is why I’m now a MonaVie-drinking Marine who sells Amway products in his spare time.)

What’s more American than that?


  1. Avatar

    These Marines though, they’re relentless! One of them tried to recruit me at Calvin once. I told him I wasn’t American and even then, his eyes widened as if I was now EXACTLY what he was looking for and he said, “Well, do you WANT to be American?” And he winked. And I walked away feeling violated somehow.

    • Bart

      Nard, you know what I’m talking about. The classic “no means yes” of recruiting.

  2. Avatar

    The Navy, bafflingly enough, was the branch that really wanted me to join up (based on my ACT score, as far as I can tell, since that’s exactly when the calls started). Obviously they had never laid eyes on me or they would have realized that I would curl up and die on day 1 of boot camp.

    • Bart

      No one is safe from the SAT or ACT. So much information for sale there. When I took the SAT, mail started coming out of the woodwork from colleges looking to fill that “guy-with-mediocre-grades” section of the class.

      • Bart

        Actually, the mail came from the mailbox.

    • Avatar

      Hah! Yes! For who-knows-what reason, everyone in my class took the ASVAB, which is actually *about* military career aptitudes, and despite at that time not knowing the difference between plywood and particle board, I scored high. I then agreed to a phone call with some recruitment officer, and actually made myself sick with worry about what I would say and ultimately made my mom answer the phone and say I wasn’t interested. Because I was cool like that in high school.

    • Avatar

      Laura, my father and brother are career military officers. When I told my dad that I might do ROTC to pay for college, he laughed at me.

  3. Abby Zwart

    I was never recruited for any branch of the military. I feel strangely unaccomplished now. Sheesh.


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