Sales and White Water Rafting— They Have More in Common Than You Might Think

A couple years ago, in the middle of the Colorado River, I learned one of the greatest sales and business lessons of my life.  If you’ve ever been on rapids before, you understand how serious it can get at times.  In the parts of the river that get to class 5 and 6, it is no joke – people die every year doing this pastime. 

The group I was with was filled with white water rookies. None of us had been before. As we approached the first set of major rapids ahead, the whole crew got real serious as we watched the boat ahead of us in the distance flip, sending everyone into the river to fend on their own.  The next words that came out of our guide’s mouth are words that will never leave me.  In fact, they’ve become a touchstone that’s shaped my entire career.  

“Boys, see that ahead of us?  That’s aggression. It wants to destroy you, and it will unless we do one thing. We must meet that aggression with aggression. When I say paddle, you paddle like you’ve never paddled before. Listen to me, and you won’t end up like that raft ahead of us.”

We did just as he said. When he said paddle, we paddled.  When he said faster, we paddled faster.  When he said lean right, we leaned right.  We executed exactly as he said, and we ended up just fine.  The rest of the day was a balance of enjoying the sights, the casual stroll during the calm times, and stepping up with aggression to face the aggression during the time the rapids came into view. It became a fun little routine.

That day on the river taught me three critical lessons that apply to our everyday business life, especially in sales.

 Lesson #1: Be Prepared for Rapids

Sales is a game of ups and down of calm times and aggression times.  It’s never going to be a casual stroll.  There will be days, weeks, months, and quarters where everything works.  When you call prospects, they answer.  When you do demos people buy. When you prospect, you find the best leads.  But, there will also be times when nothing works. You can take the same exact strategy the next week or month and come up with a goose egg.

Guess what?  You’re in a time of aggression.  You must face aggression with aggression.  The times when things get hard and nothing is working you need to “paddle like you’ve never paddled before.”  Most people put their head in the sand and cry about why nothing is working.  The ones who want to survive will put out more calls, more emails, more time, more effort.  Face aggression with aggression.

Lesson #2: You Could End Up in the Water

The consequences of not facing aggression with aggression will flip your boat.  As I mentioned before, most people retreat when things get tough.  The boat in front of us was a great example, and their day got ruined.  The business world is cruel – it doesn’t care about your feelings, and will eat you up if you don’t face it head on.  When things get tough you have one of two options for absolute survival.  Face aggression with aggression.

Lesson #3: Listen to the Voice of Experience

The voice of the people who have been there will always ring true.  Had we not had the guide in the back of the boat telling us exactly when to paddle, how hard, and in what direction we would have been in for a world of hurt.  That guide has been on that river hundreds of times and knew exactly how to navigate a situation that could have literally killed us if we hadn’t taken it seriously. 

The same holds true in the business world. There are people who have been there and done that.  Stop trying it your way.   Surround yourself by people who have done what you want to do – who have been where you want to go. And, when they tell you to paddle you better paddle in the direction and pace that they tell you. When there are rough waters ahead, lean on the voice of those who have been on that river before. Face aggression with aggression.

If you have never experienced the ups and downs of easy times and extremely difficult times, I’d assert that you may be on the wrong river. Push yourself to new heights that are going to test you. Strive for goals that are going to force you to travel down rivers that have class 5 rapids.  And when you get to them, face the aggression with aggression! Stand up and paddle!

Josh Mastel