For four summers in college, I sold educational books door-to-door. This was not the “it” job everyone aspired to. Definitely not glamorous. As you may imagine, door-to-door salespeople are not typically granted with a warm welcome. This summer job was unique. I feel lucky to have chosen this path to start my career. Anyone who has sold door-to-door will champion the lifetime benefits reaped from participating in the School of Hard Knocks.

The day after completing my freshman year at Stanford, I jumped into a caravan of cars headed for Nashville. We were about to start our summer jobs with The Southwestern Company, which has employed college students to run their own business selling educational books door-to-door since 1868. After 40 hours driving on Interstate 40, we arrived. We spent a week at an intense sales school that taught basic selling skills and the principles of running our own business. After a week in Nashville, we hopped back into our caravan and continued North. This is how my adventure began.

A day later, we arrived in the affluent suburb of Millburn, NJ. First order of business – find a place to live. We visited community centers and places of worship until we found a lovely family who rented six of us two rooms in their home for $25 each per week. Believe it or not, there are families out there excited to host college students working for the summer. They just aren’t always easy to find. Second – visit town hall to get a solicitation permit. Lucky me, this little card was an important ticket. Next – figure out how to get to get around since I didn’t have a car. Knocking on a few doors did the trick. Someone lent me an old bike that was laying around. Success! I could now start selling books and embark on my college career.

Selling books door-to-door is hard. Incredibly hard! Definitely the hardest and most challenging job of my entire career. For four summers, I worked 80+ hours and 6 days per week, 14 hours per day, doing at least 30 demos each day. I spoke to thousands and thousands of families every summer for four summers. I sold books rain or shine – in sheets of pouring rain and in 100+ degree scorching heat. I lugged my 25+ pound bookbag up and down streets, often running, for miles until I had dents in my shoulders and blisters on my feet. Barking dogs chased me down driveways and over hedges. Police in patrol cars got to know me by name. Hundreds and hundreds of doors were literally slammed in my face. The bookfield was rippled with adversity any way you turned. Tough, yes, but oh how I grew dealing with so much adversity.

Selling books provided a crash course in life. About people. About communication. About the principles of success. About failure. About financial independence. About self-motivation and perseverance. These four years were character-building in every way.

These summers provided an intense overview of human psychology and behavior. I saw the best in people, and unfortunately, also the not-so-good. By meeting so many families, we saw it all. Most of what you can imagine happens in any given neighborhood, we encountered. My days were made by little acts of kindness from people who answered the doors. These individuals helped me craft the vision of the type of person I aspired to be.

Selling books taught basic skills that aren’t taught in school: how to start a conversation with virtually anyone, the importance of gestures and non-verbal communication, how to be acutely aware of your surroundings, and even how a simple smile can make all the difference. The experience acutely illustrated how much relationships matter and the importance of family. Other key lessons were control what you can control, always treat people with kindness and respect, and never ever give up.

Selling books pushed me into independence. Here I was, a self-absorbed teenager on my own 3,000 miles away from home. Problem solving, thinking on my feet, and being self-sufficient were all necessities. Accountability was not optional, as when I made mistakes, there was only myself to blame.

Oh, there were times when I just wanted to quit. When door after door was slammed in my face, when nobody was buying, when I was feeling sorry for myself. Sometimes it was hard to go on. Yet, I learned how to pick myself up, regardless of the circumstance, and to keep on going.

Selling books introduced me to guiding principles for both my career and for life. Hard work. Positive Attitude. Commitment. Belief. Integrity. Passion. Risk-taking. Thinking big. Being yourself. Making an impact. Who knew that a summer job could be so formative?

No, selling books certainly was not glamorous. But who needs glamour when you have the School of Hard Knocks?


  • Kelly Breslin Wright

    Board Director at Fastly, Lucid, Amperity, and Even. Instructor, UW Foster. Former EVP Sales, Tableau.

    Kelly is a Board Director at Fastly (NYSE : FSLY), Lucid, Amperity, and Even. She teaches Go-To-Market Strategy at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business. She also advises companies and is active in multiple organizations focused on promoting women on corporate boards. Kelly recently retired from her operational role at Tableau Software after 12 years. She joined Tableau as the company's tenth employee and first salesperson and helped grow Tableau into a multi-billion dollar public company as a key member of the executive team. She grew Tableau's worldwide sales and field operations from zero to $850m in revenue and managed over half of the global team as the company grew to 3400 employees. Kelly speaks and writes regularly on topics including sales, culture, high performance teams, operational excellence, diversity, scaling, and women in leadership.