Dan Pink

If it’s Thursday, it must be Hoboken. I’m sitting at a Starbucks in the center of Frank Sinatra’s hometown freebasing caffeine–and following it with a maple frosting chaser that’s now doing the mamba in my bloodstream. Across the table, calmer and more poised, is Ilise Benun. She’d never introduce herself by revealing the chemical contents of her stomach and brain. If you met Ilise on an airplane and asked her what she does for a living, she’d pause for a beat–then deliver this crisp five-word response: “I help people promote themselves.”

It’s her “elevator speech”–that hardy perennial from Sales 101. Elevator speeches equip people to describe what they’re peddling between the time the doors close in the lobby and then open again for the fifth floor. Get ready to hear more of these pitches–even if you work in a one-story building. To be a free agent means not just self-employment and self-actualization (see yesterday’s entry) it also means self-promotion. (Ilise, in fact, publishes a newsletter called “The Art of Self Promotion.”)

Another of the cultural changes free-agency has wrought is that it’s turned more Americans into salespeople. If you work on your own–as a free-lancer, contractor, or home-based business–you’re not simply your own boss. You’re also your own marketing department and sales force. Now, selling is nothing new for large slices of the American workforce. But elites often find it unseemly. Sales? That’s for schlubs like Willie Loman or sharks like the guys in Glengarry Glen Ross. Yuck. Save that task for that gal down the hall–you know, the one who didn’t do very well on the SATs, the one with all those airy “people skills.” I’ve also detected a related attitude: Many free agents, particularly those in high-concept professions, resist the idea that they are “in business.”

They never identify themselves as businesspeople. (Maybe they all read Babbit at Vassar.) Instead, they derive their identity and announce their status by profession. I’m a graphic designer. I’m a copywriter. I’m a Web developer. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. And it’s far healthier than seeking self-definition through one’s affiliation with an identity-denying large company. But I find this highbrow disdain for the ickiness of business a bit surprising. After all, in a world of free-agency, the only alternative to self-promotion is self-delusion. Like it or not, we’re all peddlers now.

On the way out of the town whose favorite son bragged, “I did it my way,” stands an enormous mural with a somewhat different message. Washed by sun and mottled by soot, it says, “Do One Thing Good.” It’s the best elevator speech I’ll hear all day.