What is the most crucial skill: expert knowledge or salesmanship?
Professional education – including college, university, and post-doc degrees – is in high demand these days. In the U.S. alone, students spend nearly $500 billion each year (!) on education. Higher education allows for a higher income; that appears to be common sense. Numerous statistics seem to confirm this point, too.
The skeptic in me says that the humble equation “learn to earn” is oversimplified.
I agree that being an expert on a complex matter is a precious thing. But, that is only one ingredient to success, and it may even be obsolete. History teaches us a different lesson: the ability to sell an idea makes a person successful and famous. Let me give you some examples:
- Galileo Galilee was the genius who invented the telescope, right? Wrong. He has effectively stolen it from Hans Lipperhey, a German spectacle maker. Galileo simply improved the device and used it to discover new celestial bodies. Because Galileo was a highly skilled in selling observations to his contemporary scientific world, the true inventor has rarely been mentioned at all. Everyone knows who Galileo Galilee was and most people are still convinced that he invented the telescope. Galileo Galilee made little effort to point to the original inventor – a circumstance that sheds some light on a surprisingly sinister side of his character.
- Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, correct? Not quite. It was the Italian Antonio Meucci who made the first long-distance call. However, he was unable to effectively patent his invention. Lack of English skills and a general lack of sales ability stripped him of the fruits of his work. It was the sales wizard Alexander Graham Bell who effectively copied Meucci’s invention, quickly patented it, and used it to gain great fame and riches.
- Every child knows Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb. Countless legends are told about the incredible number of experiments Edison allegedly undertook to produce a working light bulb. Unfortunately, these stories turn out to be a clever PR stunt. Heinrich Goebel, a German emigrant to the U.S., tried to sell his original light bulb invention (although he also had likely used work of others to construct his prototype) to Thomas Edison in 1882. That was his biggest mistake; Edison stole the invention and patented it himself. It shows what clever salesperson Edison was.
All distant memories? Probably irrelevant in modern times? Steve Jobs, the god of iPhone, is credited by many for inventing the computer mouse and the first graphical user interface back in the eighties. Macintosh was the first commercial device to use that revolutionary technology. Unfortunately, Steve Jobs did not invent it. He learned about it from his visits to the famous Xerox PARC. Steve Jobs was, however, a brilliant salesperson who was able to sell an improved variation of others’ invention to the masses.
The observation that many of the successful “inventors” did not have a college diploma proves that academic education is, at best, simply nice-to-have. It is the selling skill that makes a person rich and successful.
Nothing is more important than the ability to make the sale.
The good news is that sales skills can be learned. It is a pity that our academic education generally ignores their importance. My recommendation to all parents who want the best and brightest future for their children: don’t try to make your kid another Einstein, teach them many ways to sell an idea. I also strongly encourage seasoned professionals to take courses in sales rhetoric and tactics.
I have seen many brilliant experts sell themselves far under their real, true market price because they lack selling skills. It costs a fraction of the accumulated private school tuition to learn salesmanship, and the return on investment will be a great many times higher. Guaranteed.