The doorbell rang late on a Sunday night.
My eyes darted to the front door, then back at Melis. “Who the hell is that,” she asked, knee-deep in legos. She pulled Scarlett close. One look at our neighborhood, and you’d appreciate our apprehension. Our house sits in a dark, wooded cul-de-sac, nestled within dense marshland blanketed in misty, lingering fog.
I’m exaggerating, but it definitely oscillates between beautifully tucked away and downright creepy.
Until then, I hadn’t even known if the doorbell worked. Our first Halloween was still days off, and not even Jehovah’s Witnesses ventured down our secluded shady lane. And let’s be honest: aside from cops and serial killers, who knocks on doors anymore? Even Fedex gave it up, opting to shot put packages from the curb instead.
I tried to lighten the mood. “I knew it, Rich and Barb are swingers,” I said, heading for the front door. Like most elderly couples, our neighbors are asleep by 8 o’clock. Melis offered a courteous giggle.
I looked out the narrow window along the length of the door, and saw nothing but darkness. Instinctively, I hit the Kennedy Compound lights, a series of spotlights mounted around our house’s perimeter by the previous owner. They’re ridiculous. With a click the yard lit up like Fenway Park, everywhere but the front door. The bulb was out, of course, and had been for months. A handful of I’ll do it later’s eventually became we don’t have a porch light.
I opened the door, ready to unleash a front kick that would make Leonidas jealous. As I peered into the backlit shadow, the silhouette of a small, older man began to emerge.
My eyes adjusted quickly to the dark. First impressions are not this guy’s strong suit, I thought. He wasn’t small at all, just an unfortunate combination of poor posture and meek demeanor.
He stood modestly in jean shorts and a crew-neck sweatshirt, with white tube socks stemming from weathered New Balances. Part Bill Gates, part Wall-E, his impossibly thick glasses magnified the calm and kindness of his eyes. My apprehension waned.
He had no warrant, and no machete. He didn’t even have girls scout cookies. What does this guy want from us, I couldn’t help thinking. “Pete,” I said, reaching my hand out. You can glean a lot about someone’s intentions just from a greeting.
“Walt,” he replied uncomfortably. I liked him right away.
I stepped back, inviting him in. We stood just inside the doorway as Walt began explaining his mission. He’s going door to door- as he has for the last 8 years- in an effort to raise funds for Multiple Sclerosis research. To help his cause, he participates in an epic bike race each year.
“Come on in,” I said, and led him to the kitchen where Melis stood waiting. With Scarlett on her hip, she smiled her what the hell’s going on smile, a derivative of the patented I’m gonna kill you. He’s harmless, I replied, with an almost imperceptible shake of my head.
Walt went on to show me a list of donors from the area, neighbors of mine who kindly gave $10, $20, or even $25. He scrolled clumsily through an impressive stack of hand-written spreadsheets, stopping randomly at names and amounts. I noticed the addresses, scribbled in different colors of ink, spanned across five neighboring towns. This guy’s been at it all damn day, I thought.
It’s a labor of love, I quickly came to find. Walt’s wife suffers from MS, and instead of letting helplessness devour him, he’s taken action. He expressed how incredibly grateful he’d be for even a penny. I believed him.
“Say no more, Walt,” I said, walking over to the junk drawer. At this point, I’d have let him babysit Scarlett.
As I searched for the checkbook, Walt looked over to Melis. “She just loves the beach,” he said, “my wife.” His awkwardness briefly melted away at the mention of her, then quickly returned. “We couldn’t go anymore, because her body, ya know a symptom of MS patients they can’t, um, regulate temperature.”
Walt paused, and a rueful look washed over him. “She always loved the ocean,” he said, offering another glimpse of the poetic cadence his voice possessed only when speaking of his wife.
He brightened up, pulled from his revelry. He told us that thanks to his fundraising efforts, they were able to get a special apparatus, a type of jacket that cools her body. It was obviously a much-needed win.
I imagine he told this story, or one just like it, countless times to countless strangers over the weekend. But you’d never know it; the triumph in his voice was clear as day. You could easily imagine him sitting on the beach, taking simple pleasure in watching his wife slide her toes into the sand.
Walt spoke about the incredible things he does for his wife without an ounce of self-pity or martyrdom. He wasn’t worn down or defeated, nor was he boastful. He loves her so dearly, so matter-of-factly, and that meant being at my doorstep late on a Sunday night, no matter how unconventional it’s become to ring a doorbell. It was that simple.
I was ashamed of how suspicious I was of Walt, that my knee-jerk reaction was apprehension. But the truth is, it’s warranted.
We’re always being pitched. And we know it. We know it because you simply cannot fake authenticity, and when someone tries to, it’s grotesquely obvious. It’s as crystal clear as Walt’s unwavering love for his ailing wife. And still, we’re forced to put on our waders everyday, and trudge through the ever-deepening BS.
Walt didn’t need to take an online course in sales, or show up at my door in a custom suit and wingtips. It was quite the opposite; I could barely hear him stumbling over his words, and his sweatshirt said Save the Max. He didn’t need a conversion strategy or drip e-mail campaign, because he wasn’t full of shit.
He’s raised a quarter of a million dollars since his wife was diagnosed, and he’s done it on sheer authenticity.
My brief encounter with Walt truly left an impact on me, and I share this story for two reasons. One, because Walt deserves it; and two, because good God we could use more authenticity in the world.
I was struck by how quickly and wholeheartedly I trusted Walt, how refreshing it was to not be pitched. The vast majority of marketing and sales pitches are synthetic and off-putting. Admittedly, I’ve been guilty of it. I’ve tried mimicking the very same sales techniques I’m constantly accosted with, because I simply didn’t know better; I thought it was a consequence of being in business.
Ultimately, all I was doing was adding to the endless barrage of inauthentic rubbish.
I’ve since changed our “marketing strategy,” and abandoned all the “market-tested” sales techniques. In fact, I gave up trying to “sell” altogether. Our approach now is simple: offer an authentic glimpse into how incredible Jiu Jitsu is for our students. That’s it.
You can probably guess what happened next. The phone started ringing, and it hasn’t stopped.
We aren’t breaking any records, and we aren’t trying to. We’re not in the business of churning out faceless numbers through a revolving door. In fact, we’re not a business at all, we’re a practice. We’re in the practice of enriching our student’s lives through Jiu Jitsu, and we do it genuinely and sincerely.
Walt shifted my paradigm more profoundly than any marketing guru or sales course ever could. He didn’t try to be something he’s not. He showed up on my doorstep and reminded me that authenticity is the foundation of success.